I wanted to protect her from her insecurities.
This much I knew since the moment I saw her huddled in a corner of our dance practice room, trying to make herself scarce as she struggled not to make her sobs echo across the space.
The dance instructor and the other YG trainees had already left by then, but for some reason I'd lagged behind that day. Just in time to see a blur of straight black hair fall to the floor, hiding its owner's tear-streaked cheeks.
I could have easily gotten out of the room and this girl wouldn't even notice. This wasn't the first time I'd seen a new trainee break down from the stress of it all, and it certainly wouldn't be the last.
And yet, the pull of curiosity - and something else I couldn't figure out back then - urged me to walk towards her and ask, "Hey there, what's wrong?"
Puffy, red-rimmed, innocent brown eyes suddenly met mine, startled that someone else was still in the room, and then looked away just as quickly.
"I-I'm so s-sorry, please don't mind me," she stuttered, rubbing her eyes with the heel of her palm and starting to get up. She didn't even have to stand all the way for me to know she was quite taller than I was.
I could have let her go and spend the rest of my days not worrying about anything else except debuting as an artist. After all, that was what years of being in this agency had taught me to do.
And yet, I found myself gently reaching for the girl's arm to stop her from leaving.
"I'm not going to judge you. It's okay. You can talk to me."
She reluctantly dropped back down on the floor with a sigh, but didn't say anything. I watched her reflection from the floor-to-ceiling mirror across the room. Her mouth opened partway a few times before closing again, seemingly struggling to verbalize the right words to explain the thoughts running through her mind.
They came out in hushed whispers after what seemed like hours of total silence. Sometimes she pronounced things wrongly, and spoke English when she couldn't remember the Korean equivalent of some words, but I could clearly make out the feelings of loneliness, inadequacy and uncertainty in her voice.
"I think I'm going to fail this class. I can't dance well."
"I don't think I-I'm... good enough... to be here."
"I want to go home."
I wracked my brain for the five years' worth of English I'd learned back in New Zealand, hoping the other girl would feel even a little bit better if someone spoke to her in the language she was most familiar with.
"I don't really know how to help with you being homesick," I started, "but I can help you with dancing."
"You will? But why? You don't even know me."
"Then, we'll fix that. I'm Jennie Kim," I said, holding out my hand and sounding more confident than I actually was.
I didn't know why, but back then, this girl made me as nervous as I often was during a monthly trainee evaluation.
More so when I saw a small, shy smile make its way to her lips as she took my hand in hers. "Roseanne Park. Nice to meet you, Jennie."
I wanted to protect her from unfair criticism. And ever since she, Jisoo, Lisa and I debuted as Blackpink, the internet definitely had a fair share of those.
We weren't oblivious. Ever since the four of us were put together in a group, we prepared ourselves for negative feedback from people hiding behind their keyboards, threatened by change.
Even then, being prepared for them didn't make the comments hurt any less.
Jisoo unnie was the best at being strong for us, but I knew her long enough to see that she was trying - just as hard as the rest of us were, maybe even much more for our sake - not to let all the negativity get to her.
I was all too glad with how well Lisa got along with Chaeyoung from the moment they'd met. I'd been friends with her the longest, and I figured, after years of being away from Thailand, it would do her good to bond with someone her age who could relate to the homesickness. Lisa would help get Chaeyoung's mind out of caring what other people thought of her for sure.
And me, I didn't want to admit I was affected by it all. Admitting it made it real. Admitting it meant I'd lose. I refused to lose. Not after I'd gotten this far.
So I followed Jisoo's lead and kept a brave face. Even as I was accused of, among other things, being more privileged than the other girls, having an attitude after making a (scripted) joke at a variety show, and, whenever my motion sickness reared its ugly head on stage, being a lazy dancer.
"Hey, Jennie unnie?"
I blinked, realizing I'd tuned the rest of the world out while our makeup artist worked on making me appear less drowsy-looking, for an early morning radio show appearance.
"Yes, Rosie?" I answered, looking at her from the vanity mirror. The Chaeyoung staring back at me was a little taller than the crying teenager I'd sat with a few years ago. She carried herself much better compared to back then, too. And if at all possible, she had become even more beautiful.
"How do you do it?"
"Hmm? Do what?"
I saw her self-assured mask slip just a little, and at that moment, the person I locked eyes with was the timid Chaeyoung I'd first met. "How do you... endure all the things people say about you?"
"You read some comments about you on SNS, didn't you?" I asked, even though the hurt in her eyes already gave me the answer.
She hung her head. "I know Jisoo unnie says nothing good comes out of it, but..."
"It's okay. I won't tell."
"I just don't know what to do when I read things about me that aren't true," Chaeyoung muttered.
I had to grit my teeth to stop myself from creating a YouTube account (I knew Chaeyoung only ever spent many a free time on that particular site.) right then and there, and giving those commenters a piece of my mind. Before I could ask what exactly she'd read, though, our staff was calling us out of the dressing room to get the show underway.
She may have thought I was out of earshot, or she'd unintentionally been thinking out loud, but right before we left the room, she said softly, "I never use a fake voice when I sing."
Hearing her sound so crushed bothered me all throughout the radio show. The questions were predictable enough that I could speak on autopilot while my eyes fixed themselves on Chaeyoung, trying to see how she was doing.
Right then, I realized I'd do anything to wipe away the sadness from that face.
And so, when the radio MC asked us about first impressions, I couldn't help but bring out a fond memory of staying up all night with Chaeyoung and listening to her play songs for us.
"...One night she came and then she started singing and playing her guitar, and I thought, 'Yeah, we're gonna get along'." I never looked away from her as I added, "She's got a really great voice. That's what I thought, even before."
It wasn't perfect, and it was the most I could say right then before the MC moved on to another question, but I prayed it was enough.
A grateful smile and a little giggle, as Lisa playfully nudged Chaeyoung's shoulder, told me that it was.
Of all the things I could possibly protect her from, the most difficult by far was protecting her from myself.
The fluttering feelings I'd had for her ever since that day had turned into a fire that could barely be contained. I knew I'd been hopelessly attracted to Chaeyoung from the beginning, and the years we'd been together did nothing but fan the flame inside me.
The last thing I wanted to do was to burn her with these feelings. Not to mention all the complications that inevitably came with them.
So, even if it was as painful as pulling teeth, I spent less and less time with her, and slowly started putting up an invisible wedge between us.
She never asked why. And if she ever did, there was no way I could answer.
Some time later, after a whirlwind comeback and my solo debut, I sat with the members and told them that I'd said yes to dating Kim Jongin. I couldn't dare look at Chaeyoung for a reaction.
"I'm happy for you, unnie," Lisa said, ever the supportive maknae. She slung an arm over my shoulder and surprised me when she added, "But are you?" in a lower voice.
I saw Jisoo tilt her head to the side, giving me a look that seemed like she wanted to ask the same question.
How could I think I'd be able to hide anything from these two who knew me so well?
From the corner of my eye, I saw Chaeyoung, hair now a bright blonde, straighten up on the living room sofa.
If she'd said she didn't agree with me dating, if she'd told me to break up with him not even a week after I'd said yes, I knew in my heart I would have ended things before that day was over.
But Chaeyoung, being the selfless soul that she was, didn't tell me any of that. "Me too, Jennie unnie. I'm happy for you, too," she said instead with a smile that, while sincere, didn't quite reach her eyes.
Not if it's not you.
What am I doing to us?
I bit my lip and forced myself to smile back. Holding my tears at bay, I was able to muster a weak "Thank you, Rosie" in response.
It wasn't until much later that I could sneak into Jisoo's room and break down in her arms that night.
I broke up with Jongin not even two months into our relationship, if anyone could call a few back-and-forth KakaoTalk messages (and a number of very brief dates where he did almost all the talking) a relationship. I'd told him I didn't like all the press we were getting about being revealed to the public, even though at that point I couldn't care less what the people thought of the news.
Chaeyoung never asked me why. And I was too scared to tell her, anyhow.
In February, the four of us celebrated her birthday in New York City, after we'd been invited to appear on an American talk show. We could tell she was glad to be around people who she could speak straight English with. There was a confidence about her that I'd never seen whenever we guested on shows in Korea.
She made my heart full and ache painfully with longing, all at the same time.
We'd taken a bottle of red wine to Chaeyoung's hotel room after dinner to drink, but Jisoo and Lisa excused themselves suspiciously early that night. Before I could say good night and follow them, the two devils told me that I wasn't good enough to join their afterparty in Lisa's room; and, in Jisoo's words, I should be "a good little mandu and drink with Chaeyoungie a bit longer".
"Aish, those two..." I muttered under my breath as they closed the door behind them.
"Unnie, you don't have to stay if you don't want to," Chaeyoung said, staring absentmindedly at the wine she was swirling in her glass. "I can clean up."
The way she said it made me regret even thinking about leaving. I couldn't do that to her, not on her birthday of all days.
"No, I'm staying."
She gave me a sad smile, probably thinking I was sticking around out of pity. "Are you sure?"
"Yeah. I mean it," I said firmly. "It's been too long since we've spent time together."
"No, it's my fault..." I trailed off.
We continued sipping on our wine glasses, the only noises coming from the busy street some storeys down.
Her voice was so soft, I barely heard it when, some minutes later, she said, "I have a birthday wish."
I looked up from my glass. "What is it?"
Her eyes met mine, her gaze holding a challenge. "I wish you'd tell me what you're so afraid of."
"Ah, well... It's nothing, unnie, forget it," she said, seemingly giving up and darting her eyes away.
I might have drunk a little more wine than I should have, because the next thing I knew, I was reaching for Chaeyoung's hand from across the table. "No, tell me what you meant by that, Chaeng."
She squeezed my hand gently, before pulling hers away. "I just want to know why you can't be honest. About your feelings."
Oh. If Jisoo and Lisa knew, of course she would, too. I was stupid for ever thinking otherwise.
"I..." I started, voice wavering, before I finally gave up and let my thoughts spill out. "I don't want to hurt you. I'm scared that... that I can't control what I feel. That I'll end up taking everything from you and you'll have nothing left. I'm scared of... of how much I want you. All of you, Rosie."
This time, it was her who grabbed my hand. "Jen, I'm scared, too. It's why I never said anything all these years, either."
I closed my eyes shut and braced myself for her next words, which I were expecting to be along the lines of, "We can't do this, it's too risky, think of Jisoo unnie and Lisa".
I couldn't see, but I sensed Chaeyoung stand up and leave her seat. I felt her soft breaths on the tip of my nose, but my eyes still flew open in surprise when her lips met mine for the first time.
The fire inside me wanted more. A whole lot more.
I pulled her towards me and kissed her roughly, any sense of self-control long forgotten. She shocked me for the second time that night by biting my lower lip and slipping her tongue into my mouth.
I held her by the waist as she straddled me, my other hand tangled in her hair, pulling her even closer than before.
"Rosie, this is what I mean," I whispered, trailing kisses down her neck. "I love you so much... I can't help myself..."
She cupped my cheek and brought our lips together again, but not before barely stifling a moan. "It's okay." She looked at me, gaze steady, taking my hand and intertwining it with hers. "You don't have to treat me like glass."
"And, what you said, about hurting me... I know I might get hurt, and I might even hurt you too, someday. But you're worth it, Jennie. Because I love you. You're worth getting hurt for."
Tears were starting to cloud my vision from the gravity of her words. I pitched forward, wrapping my arms around her, and never had I felt a desire as strong as this - to hold her as close to me as possible, for as long as she would let me.
"Thank you, I... I don't know what to say. You love me, too." I took a deep breath, still not quite believing this was happening. "Oh, wow."
"Yes, I do, unnie," she smiled in my embrace. "But I do have another wish," Chaeyoung added, drawing back to meet my eyes, a hopeful look on her face.
"Can you actually have more than one wish for your birthday?"
"Oh, come on, just give me this one."
"Okay, okay," I laughed, reaching up to tuck a few strands of Chaeyoung's soft, blonde hair behind her ear and running my thumb over her adorably puffy cheeks. "What's your wish?"
"Just, that you would let me protect you, too."
Oh, love, if you only knew, you already have. More times than I can count.
I looked up at her, a smile making its way on to my lips as I pulled her in for another kiss.