"I'm fine, just tired."
If Chaeyoung were to be given a Korean won for every time she had been repeating these words the past few months, she might have had enough money for a plane ticket to Australia by then.
She didn't really know what she was tired of, exactly. Her trainee days had long conditioned her body and mind to embrace the exhaustion that came with relentless dance practices and song recordings. She reveled in every shout and cheer from the group's Blinks whenever she and the other members made an appearance somewhere.
No, the tiredness was definitely not physical.
What she'd later dubbed “the dark cloud" would hover over her at the most random of moments. In the middle of her laughing together with the rest of Blackpink on a Vlive broadcast, for example, she would find herself suddenly tuning out all conversation and would later be caught by the members, as well as watchful Blinks, staring off into the distance.
“Let's read the comments!" one of the members, usually Jisoo, would say.
"'Is Rosé okay?' 'What's she looking at?' 'Is there a ghost?'"
Chaeyoung would try to shoo the dark cloud away with a forced chuckle, say something like, "Don't worry Blinks, I'm fine. And there's no ghost, don't be silly!" and then will herself to interact with everyone as if nothing happened.
She could try her hardest to hide the dark cloud from everything and everyone, except her sketchbook. The bright and sunny doodles she used to gravitate to suddenly turned darker, colder, sharper. She found herself buying more pencils and black-colored pens than she ever remembered.
Next thing you know I'll go all Jennie Kim and have a closet full of black clothes, Chaeyoung once chided herself.
She didn't understand what was happening to her, not really. She knew herself to cry easily at the smallest of things, but right then, as she wondered what could possibly be wrong with her, she found herself detached from any sort of emotion. It almost scared her, how unfamiliar she was becoming to herself, as if she were staring into the mirror with a different face looking back at her.
She couldn't even remember when she last shed a tear over a meal that tasted good. It appeared the dark cloud affected even her appetite. The other three members started to notice something was off with her after a few instances of catching her idly running her chopsticks over her food and then pushing her plate away with a frown.
"Chaeyoung-ah, are you okay?" She wasn't sure who spoke first right then, only just having looked up from the table. She'd withdrawn to her thoughts yet again.
She figured it was Jisoo when the older girl nudged her side. "My cooking isn't that bad, is it? Are your dreams of having your own mukbang show over now or what?"
Chaeyoung had to command her lips to curl up into a small smile. "Umm. No, it's not the food, unnie, it's really good, actually. I guess I'm just tired."
"What? How can you say it's good if you haven't even tasted any of it?"
Lisa, who was sitting on Chaeyoung's other side, sidled up to her, giving her a side-hug with one arm and smoothing her hair. "Aww, poor Chaeng. You should get some rest. You've been tired a lot lately."
"I know Lisa. I'll rest after this."
"We're all tired," Jisoo whined. "We could really use a free day to go out somewhere."
Jennie, who had been uncharacteristically silent throughout this exchange between the other three members, finally spoke. "And we'll have that free day, after we're finally done with our comeback and the promotions that come with it. In the meantime," her eyes flicked to Chaeyoung's from across the dining room table, giving her a reassuring grin, "Let's hang on, okay? Fighting!“
Chaeyoung returned the smile, albeit weakly, as if the very act took every ounce of her dwindling energy. She may not have been sure what was going on with her lately, but she was sure that she would always be grateful for the friendship between her and her members.
Besides, seeing Jennie smile at her like that made the heaviness in her chest a little more bearable, somehow.
"You know, normally Chaeng would be crying because of such a cheesy scene like this," Lisa chimed in. "Are you out of tears? You need to drink more water!" She proceeded to (dramatically) grab Chaeyoung's glass with one hand and the water pitcher with the other.
"She's doing her concept acting thing again," Jisoo stage whispered.
As the other two watched Lisa and Jisoo start their usual bickering, Chaeyoung felt Jennie's concerned gaze on her, even when she wasn't looking back. The younger girl fixed her eyes on to her dinner, took a deep breath and wondered when she wouldn't have to fake laughing, and fake feeling anything, anymore.
The overwhelming urge to escape pulled on Chaeyoung's thoughts as she sat in their van with one of the group's managers, who was dropping her off to church that day.
She didn't want to escape from being part of a group that she loved so much, or from the dreams she thought she believed in. She wasn't running from anything outside, but she wanted very much to run away from the dark cloud that continued to plague and poison her on the inside.
How do you run away from yourself though? she thought.
Chaeyoung knew she couldn't. So she did the next best (admittedly, not the most thought-through) thing: She walked away from the church doors as soon as she was dropped off and the van out of sight. Her manager wouldn't be back to pick her up until an hour later.
One way or another, she was able to have her escape. At least, for a while, she reminded herself, as she donned a face mask and allowed her feet to take her where they would.
The tall girl unconsciously led herself to an open area by the Han river. She saw several families picnicking, sheets of various colors laid out on the grass, small children laughing and chasing each other from time to time.
Oh right, it's Sunday today.
Much like everywhere else, Chaeyoung felt out of place. Like she was always on the outside looking in. She was frustrated with this discomfort. She wanted to know what was wrong already, so she could immediately work on fixing it and getting everything back to what it once was. Why couldn't it be that straightforward?
A drop of water later fell on her wrist, snapping her out of her mind's circular arguments. She looked up to find the sky overcast, swollen grey-black clouds threatening to give out at any second. The families started to gather their blankets, their food and their children, rushing to get to their cars or to a shaded area before the rain poured. Chaeyoung looked on as the riverbank started to empty, and as the clouds finally lost against gravity, she took her mask off, fell down on the grass and let the water pelt at her.
She was hoping the rain would wash her apathy away and she would turn back to the Rosé everyone knew and loved when it was over.
Maybe it will happen if I wish hard enough, she thought, squeezing her eyes shut, trying to see if the drops falling on either side of her face were her tears or just the rain.
She couldn't help but laugh at herself mockingly. She was Park Chaeyoung, main vocalist of Blackpink, surrounded by national (and international) fame, fiercely loyal fans, and a handful of awards, but she had never felt so cold, so devoid of feeling. It didn't matter if she was in that riverbank, on stage, or even if she were back home in Australia, it would all be the same to her.
It would still be the same emptiness.
Her eyes slowly opened after a minute of not feeling any raindrops on her cheeks. She found a familiar pair of eyes staring down at her, their owner holding up an umbrella with one hand.
The older girl said nothing in response, merely holding out her other hand and looking at her with an unreadable facial expression.
Chaeyoung sat up and shook her head. "No, my hands are all muddy," she muttered, knowing how much of a neat freak Jennie could be.
To her surprise, Jennie stooped down beside her and grabbed her hand—mud, grass, water and all. "I was worried about you. You think I'd care about how dirty your hands are right now?"
She gently grazed her thumb over Chaeyoung's palm as they both continued to sit on the damp ground. Despite the cold from the wind and rain, Jennie's hand felt comfortingly warm.
"How did you find me?"
"I always know where to find you," she answered with a poker face, which a few seconds later, broke into a sheepish smile. "Is what I'd like to say, but it's actually because I can access your phone's location from an app in my phone." As an afterthought she added, "I have Lisa's and Jisoo's too, but I was actually expecting to use the app to find any of them if they ever ran off. I didn't think I'd have to use it to track you down."
Chaeyoung bowed her head. "I'm sorry. I don't really know what I was thinking. I hope Manager unnie isn't in too much trouble."
"It's been three hours since you were last seen," Jennie said a matter-of-factly. "You know you'll have to apologize to her and to the rest of the staff too, don't you?"
The younger girl nodded mutely, dripping hair matted to the sides of her face, some grass sticking out the back of her head. Jennie let go of her hand and started to gently untangle Chaeyoung's long tresses, while still holding the umbrella over them both with her other hand.
"Unnie, you'll get your hand dirty..." she started to protest.
"Never mind that. I'm just glad you're okay."
"I'm sorry I worried you."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
Chaeyoung opened her mouth to speak, but she couldn't find the words to describe how messed up her thoughts had been lately. So she shook her head for the second time that day and said, "No. Not really."
She waited for Jennie to ask her "Why not?", or tell her they had to go back, that Chaeyoung had to dry herself off and change clothes, that everyone was waiting for them, that the sooner they'd return, the less trouble they would be in, but her unnie surprised her once again when she said none of those things.
"Do you want to stay here a bit longer?"
When she saw Chaeyoung nod, she held the other girl's hand again, intertwining their fingers. She softly said, "Alright. I'm staying, too."
For the first time in the last few months, a genuine smile graced the younger girl's lips. Both girls ended up sitting there in a comfortable silence, gazing at the river, until the rain stopped completely.
Later, she would think back on that day and ask herself if it was at that moment that she fell for Kim Jennie.
"Chaeyoung-ah, wake up. There's a photo shoot today. We have two hours to get ready."
"I understand," Chaeyoung replied, her voice coming out raspy and gravelly instead of the sing-song pitch everyone was used to. Upon hearing her response, Jisoo cast her a worried look and made her way from the open door to the other girl's bed.
"Oh no, it looks like you have a high fever," she said, after placing the back of her palm on an unnaturally warm forehead. "I'll let Manager unnie know—"
"Jisoo unnie, it's okay," Chaeyoung said, weakly touching the sleeve of the older girl's pajama top. "It would be embarrassing to back out of something I've already committed to months ago. Let me just get ready."
Jisoo regarded her with a thoughtful frown. "Are you sure? I don't want your fever to get worse."
"Who's got a fever?" Chaeyoung heard Lisa's voice, and her footsteps, before she entered as well. Like Jisoo, she crossed the room and placed her hand on the older girl's forehead. "You're burning up!"
"Yah, Lisa, we've established that fact a minute ago."
"Don't pick on me, unnie, can't you see Chaeyoungie is sick?"
The oldest and the youngest member started to shoot each other playful glares while they sat on the side of the bed, ignoring the sick girl completely. They're definitely a handful, Chaeyoung thought, amusement being all too quickly replaced by a weariness that showed on her face as her head fell back on to her pillow.
Lisa's concern for Chaeyoung apparently won over her penchant for annoying Jisoo, as she went through the trouble of going to the other side of the bed and curling up next to the other girl under her blanket. "I hope you feel better soon Chae. But Jisoo unnie and I both agree you shouldn't push yourself today."
"I'll talk to Manager unnie," Jisoo decided, standing and walking out. "And get you some medicine."
Chaeyoung hummed, too tired to argue any more, letting her head rest on Lisa's outstretched arm. She drifted off to sleep not a minute later, the last thing she remembered being the maknae's slender fingers running soothingly through her hair.
She didn't know if a few minutes or a few hours had passed when she faintly heard a hushed whisper. "Lisa, you and Jisoo unnie better get ready." She then felt the tall girl's arm slowly remove itself from Chaeyoung's head, only to be replaced by another's moments later. She was feeling too weak to even get her eyes open at that point, however, to see who it was.
She could smell who it was, though, and her fever-addled consciousness was swayed back to sleep resting in what she knew was Jennie's embrace.
It was definitely hours later when she felt fingers softly caressing her left cheek. "Rosie? I hate to wake you up, but you need to take some medicine for your fever."
Chaeyoung unconsciously leaned into the hand on her face and then buried her head on the shoulder she was lying on. She did not see the owner of said shoulder start to blush and bite her lower lip at the act.
"Rosieeee," Jennie whined, shifting on the bed. "Wake up and take your medicine. Then I won't bother you anymore."
The younger girl's eyes fluttered open; hearing Jennie actually using her aegyo voice at her was just too difficult to ignore. The first thing she saw was a triumphant smirk on Jennie's bow-shaped lips. "Finally."
"Jennie unnie," Chaeyoung rasped, forcing herself to sit up, Jennie's hand rubbing small circles on her back. "Why aren't you at the photo shoot?"
"We made a compromise with the director," Jennie answered, reaching for the medicine capsules and bottled water on the bedside table. "Jisoo and Lisa would do the shoot first, then both of us would do it on a different day, when you're feeling better."
"Oh no, I'm so sorry unnie. I'm causing so much trouble for everyone."
"Don't worry about that now," she let Chaeyoung take the medicine and the water. "But we do need to talk about something. That is..." she hesitated, "If you're okay with it."
She watched as Chaeyoung pursed her lips. She'd learned it was one of her nervous habits. "Is it about why I ran off yesterday?"
Jennie nodded. "It isn't like you to do that."
"I don't know what's a 'like me' thing to do anymore," Chaeyoung muttered, eyes downcast. Her head was pounding. She just wanted to shut her eyes and never open them for as long as possible just to get away from this conversation...
"Rosie, tell me what's wrong."
"I don't know unnie, I don't know what's wrong with me," she said tersely. "I've been asking myself that question for months and I have nothing. How am I supposed to answer you?"
Jennie looked at her, lips parted. She didn't appear surprised at Chaeyoung's outburst, though. In fact, it looked more like she was expecting to hear the words that she did.
It may have been the fever that loosened Chaeyoung's tongue and did the thinking for her, or it may have been Jennie's expectant facial expression. In any case, the thoughts that had been running through her mind all those months started to come out of her mouth.
"It's like I'm not interested in anything anymore. I stopped drawing because I can't finish anything. I stopped playing games with Jisoo unnie because I have trouble paying attention. I don't touch my guitar because I haven't finished playing a song in months. I've been messing up during our practices because I lose my focus all the time. I don't taste whatever I'm eating. Sometimes I—" she lowered her voice, still avoiding Jennie's eyes, "I think about hurting myself just to see if I can still feel something. Anything."
"Chaeng..." Jennie reached for her hand and took it in her own. "I won't tell you I understand what you're saying right now, because I don't."
Chaeyoung always found Jennie's bluntness endearing, and that moment was no different. She looked up and was surprised to find Jennie's gaze watery. Usually, seeing someone cry would make her own eyes well up with tears automatically, but right then all she could do was tilt her head to one side and wonder why their roles seemed to be reversed.
The younger girl barely caught Jennie's next words with how soft she was saying them. Her voice had a vulnerability that no one would have guessed she could possess. "Promise me you won't hurt yourself." Her hold on Chaeyoung's hand tightened, like she was holding on to a lifeline.
"Can I tell you a story?" Chaeyoung shrugged, willing Jennie to continue. The older girl took a deep breath, released it, and spoke again. "I had a friend back in New Zealand. This person was so unlike me, and more like you, I guess. So happy most of the time, kind-hearted, cried easily, even ate a lot like you."
She was smiling fondly in a way Chaeyoung rarely saw. "Did you like him as more than a friend?"
Jennie gave her a meaningful look. "Her. And yes. I think I might have even been in love with her. But she never gave me time to know for sure."
"Why? What happened?"
"Well, she was happy most days, but other days I could tell she was just forcing herself. Sometimes she would come to where I was home-staying and cry on my shoulder randomly, then laugh at me right after, like nothing happened. I kept on asking her what was wrong, but she would never tell me anything. The more I asked, the more she wouldn't say. I really wanted to help, but I didn't even know how because she wouldn't tell me. She'd just keep changing the topic until I got fed up and stopped pestering her. Then one day, I didn't see her in school at all. Which was unusual because Mia never missed class for anything."
At this point she shifted her jaw, evidently holding back tears. Chaeyoung waited, this time being the one who squeezed Jennie's hand.
"I found out that she pretended to leave for school, then went back inside her house when her parents were out. She planned everything, down to the last detail. She planned how she was going to kill herself."
"She didn't leave a note or anything," she continued. "And I felt so helpless because there was nothing I could do. I couldn't save her. I couldn't be enough for her to stay."
"Her parents told me she had actually been diagnosed with clinical depression and had been on medication since she was little, but stopped taking them a little while before we met. So," she straightened her back, "After I grieved, I started to do as much research as I could about depression. Even when I came back here, when I became a trainee. I promised myself that I would know what to do if I came across anyone who might be clinically depressed."
Chaeyoung paused. Was that what she was, depressed? Or was she just too eager to put a name on her condition?
"I don't want to be presumptuous and say you have it, Chae," Jennie's voice cut into her thoughts. "I'm not a psychiatrist. But, I've been observing you lately," Of course she had, Chaeyoung mused, hence all the times she caught the other girl staring at her intently, "and I saw a lot of similarities. Actions that I missed from Mia I saw again in you. I even remember finding her at the beach one night, way after her curfew. She loved the water, like you."
"I guess she wanted to escape, too," Chaeyoung replied. "In a way, she did. In the end."
A single tear rolled off Jennie's cheek, dropping on Chaeyoung's wrist much like the first raindrop had the day before.
"You shouldn't fall for depressed girls, unnie," the younger girl whispered, using a warm hand to wipe the tear streak off Jennie's face.
"It's a little too late for that, Rosie."
Chaeyoung drew back her hand. "You know you can't save me either, don't you?"
"I know. I can only be there for you as you save yourself."
"You can't love me. I'm messed up. I'm no good for you."
"I already do, okay? I already love you. You don't get to tell me I can't."
"You—You'll get tired of me," Chaeyoung stammered, lower lip trembling. "You'll get tired of not knowing what's wrong and not being able to fix it."
"I'll stay with you whether you're able to fix yourself or not," Jennie said firmly. "Do you want to hear another story?"
Chaeyoung's lips curled inwardly again, not really sure where this conversation was going. Tired and still feverish, she laid back on her pillow. "Fine," she said softly.
Jennie used her leg to move her back towards the headboard of the bed. Hugging her knees, she said, "Well, you know I was a trainee for six years, right? On my second year, I became roommates with Jisoo unnie and we did everything together. A few years later, we met Lisa, and Jisoo started to hang out with her more than with me, saying she could teach her Korean better than I could. I didn't mind, although to this day I have no idea why none of them have made a move. I mean, it's so obvious they have a thing for each other..." She laughed briefly, Chaeyoung looking up at her with a small smile on her face.
"Anyway, with Jisoo and Lisa so preoccupied, I'd often find myself walking to classes alone. Then one day, I got into an elevator with this girl. She had a guitar slung on her back, and she looked at me with a smile which," Jennie darted her eyes at Chaeyoung's lips and chuckled, "looks exactly like that."
"And I thought to myself, 'Oh, isn't this the new trainee from Australia?' All the gossiper trainees had said she was intimidating and a bit snobbish, but all I could notice was how beautiful she was, with her long black hair framing her face and that smile of hers. And you know what? When all four of us got together as a group, I couldn't believe my luck. I was even glad that my debut was delayed twice. Because it meant that I'd get to be around my friends, and this girl, for an indefinite period of time. And maybe, if I'm fortunate, I could get her to smile on most days."
"So," Jennie finished, "I've loved you since that time in the elevator, and you can't tell me not to because I'm too far gone."
"Really? You told me an entire story just to prove your argument?"
"Maybe I don't like being told not to love you."
"Maybe I'll stop telling you, then," Chaeyoung answered, eyebrows furrowing. Jennie beamed at this, and crawled back under the blanket beside her, tucking her arm below the other girl's head.
"Now that I've basically just confessed to you, and you're not trying to reject me anymore, can I kiss you?"
"No, you can't, you'll get sick."
A pout appeared on Jennie's face. After a brief staring contest between both girls, Jennie suddenly leaned forward and brought their lips together.
"Jen! I just said you can't!"
"Don't tell me what I can and can't do," she said with a mischievous smirk. A few seconds later, a serious look took over her features as she faced Chaeyoung. "Can you promise me another thing?"
The other girl nodded. "Promise me you'll tell your family about what you're going through right now. Or at least, Alice, if you aren't ready to tell your parents yet."
"Okay," Chaeyoung breathed. "I promise."
"Also," Jennie said, bringing her hand to Chaeyoung's cheek, drawing her close for another kiss, "If you're ever going to escape somewhere, please make sure to take me with you."
"Hey! Everyone! Chaeng is back!"
Jennie and Jisoo piled out of their rooms just in time to see the tall girl dragging her pink trolley towards the living room. Chaeyoung was already smiling, relieved to be back with her members after a few days of being away, but her eyes lit up the moment they met Jennie's.
"We missed you, Chipmunk!" Lisa said, poking the other girl's cheek. "How was Australia?"
A few months after Blackpink's comeback, Chaeyoung was able to find some time to visit her family. As she thought back on to the last five days, she decided that it was a much-needed break from their hectic schedules.
"It's a bit different from what I remembered," she answered, her gaze still lingering on Jennie. "I missed you too."
"I'm glad you're back," Jennie approached, shyly at first, looking up at Chaeyoung through her lashes. Then, she stood on her tiptoes and placed a chaste kiss on the lips she'd been thinking about for the past few days.
"Aish, Jendeukkie, you're so whipped!" Jisoo teased, an amused smile on her face.
Jennie pulled away, saw Chaeyoung's cheeks turn almost as pink as her trolley, and laughed. "You want to talk about being whipped? Then how about how whipped Lisa is for you, Chichu?"
The reactions from both the real maknae and the fake maknae were instantaneous.
"H-Hey, why are you bringing me into this?"
"Lisa isn't—! Wait, are you?"
Jennie snickered, pleased at the havoc she was wreaking among these two poor, oblivious souls.
Chaeyoung laughed along. "You're evil, Jendeukkie."
"I'm also your evil, better deal with it."
The younger girl took Jennie's hand, like she needed to hold it to get her through what she would say next. "Guys," she called, "Can we sit down? I need to tell you all something."
Jisoo and Lisa looked at her with identical expressions of concern. "Sure, Chaeng," the oldest girl answered.
They took their positions on the living room chairs, Chaeyoung and Jennie on one side of the sofa, Jisoo on the other, and Lisa on the armchair beside her.
Chaeyoung licked her lips nervously, both her hands, along with Jennie's, on her lap. Jennie gave the hand that was holding hers a reassuring squeeze.
"Umm, I told my parents and my sister about... about how I wasn't doing okay for the past months. We went to see a professional. I—I got diagnosed with clinical depression. So I'll be taking medication for it from time to time. And since my psychiatrist is in Melbourne, I'll be video calling with her weekly for an hour. Our managers already know about this." She bowed her head. "Please be patient with me. I will do my best to cope and be as normal as I can be."
Not a moment later, she felt too many arms circling her, causing her to look up at her members, her friends. Her family. And as her psychiatrist told her, one of her "support systems".
"We're here for you Chaeng, always," Lisa said earnestly.
"We'll take care of you," Jisoo softly added. "We all take care of each other, don't we?"
"Yes, we do. We love you, Rosie," Jennie said, hugging Chaeyoung from behind. She faintly heard her add a whispered "I love you," and that made her heart swell, grateful tears spilling from her eyes. It felt freeing. She could still feel, after all.
Really, Chaeyoung couldn't have asked for a better support system than this. She couldn't have asked for a better family.
"I love you too."