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the hardest part is the downfall

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Seven years old, summer afternoon, they watch the tv, showing the bright gym lights, the green mats and half-full stands.

“I’ll be on that stage one day,” Jiho declares, as a Brazilian gymnast flips and twists on the uneven bars. It’s mesmerizing, and Binnie doesn’t even register her words because she’s staring in awe.

The routine ends and the girl waves, smiling, and retreats to her coach, the camera following her. She fiddles her fingers and the man beside her has his hand on his shoulder, speaking inaudibly and she nods multiple times.

“What’s wrong with her?” Binnie asks in concern, turning to her older brother. He is on the couch behind them; both of them are sitting on the floor inches from the screen.

“She didn’t do so well,” he replies. “She made a lot of mistakes, didn’t you hear the commentary? She’s lucky if she gets third place.”

Jiho and Binnie’s mouths open wide. “She was amazing!” Jiho shouts. Both of them argue loudly, insisting he was wrong. Binnie’s brother just shakes his head, looking at the leaderboard.

A few minutes later the score comes up, a 13-point-something, it doesn’t place. “She was the fourth performer, someone had to be fourth eventually,” he says sympathetically. “They are all good.”

“They are all good!” Binnie says, grumbling. “They should all win medals.”

“I want to be a gymnast,” Jiho repeats, standing up. “I want to go up on that stage. I’m gonna quit ballet. I’m going home and telling my mom.”

“No fair! We’re having a recital next week. You can’t,” Binnie says, standing up and blocking the doorway with her hands outstretched. “Anyway, that’s really not fair! I want to quit too. You can’t do it first.”

“I’d give you first place, but I want second,” Jiho announces. “I mean in the Olympics, but I guess for quitting too,” she decides.

“Don’t you want to finish watching the performances?” Binnie’s brother asks, laughing.

Twelve years old and they’re making it. It’s training every day, it’s really hard work, but everyone tells them they have surprising promise.

Binnie is more of a natural, they have both realized. They both started at the same time and practice just the same - both of their work ethics are equal - but there is some kind of athleticism in Binnie’s family that doesn’t exist in Jiho’s.

Jiho is told off by the teachers often for having bad form and not stretching enough and she cries, running off to the bathroom.

She crouches in the corner next to the sink and pulls the paper towel down, unrolling it to a height of 3 feet. “Aw Jiho, you’re too pretty to cry as much as you do,” Binnie teases from next to her. She always follows Jiho, wherever she tries to hide.

“Shut up,” Jiho says with a laugh, punching her in the arm.

On the day of the first competition Binnie has a swarm of butterflies in her stomach. Their parents tell them both they’ll do great and all that’s important is having fun.

Jiho stumbles on the vault landing and Binnie panics on the bars, but they make it out fine and proud - Binnie’s brother arrives breathless from his Judo competition in time to see the medal placed around Jiho’s neck.

Sixteen years old and their first national competitions are approaching left and right.

Jiho’s proven herself as a well rounded gymnast now and it is good enough for her name to be mentioned in the papers, for interviews and for some kind of hope that this would become a stable future. Everyone’s asking her where she’s going for university and she says it’s not a priority. Binnie hasn’t said anything though, about her own plans. It is a conversation Jiho’s avoided having.

They have been practicing together for weeks though, and this is a turning point for both of them, their coach says.

Binnie has nerves before every competition now, forget the gravity of this one, and Jiho knew that. It was a bad time for her to make a small mistake.

Years later she no longer remembers what she said, but the words in response are branded onto her heart: “Do you think you’re talented enough to take this any further than you already have?” It didn’t seem intentionally rude because Binnie was caught up in her own stresses and preparation- and yet every second leading up to her stepping on the mat, Jiho felt it eat away at her more-

Binnie gets a good score, no major deductions, and then-

Jiho goes and slips on the balance beam.

Binnie asks her afterwards what is wrong and Jiho doesn’t want to answer.

Binnie shrugs, releases the long hair she had wound up tightly in a bun and says she’s planning to pursue professional gymnastics as a career. She does not mean to be mean, it’s another bad coincidence amplified by her obliviousness, and this is what kills Jiho. Binnie has not realized what she’s just done.

This is where their friendship breaks.

Eighteen and nineteen years old, when they are in the same spot but the stakes are so much higher. It’s the Olympic trials.

The team has room for five members.

They've both been in many national competitions and Jiho has proven herself there. It’s not the same though. She realizes that she didn’t really start this for herself - but gymnastics is, in the end, an individual sport.

Jiho never explained it to Binnie, just cut herself off slowly the weeks after that first big competition, telling her mom she was too busy with schoolwork to hang out, who told Binnie’s mom, the conversation of which Binnie’s brother overheard -

They talk on the elementary school swingset one evening after practice, after Jiho had rushed out the door, leaving Binnie to stare open-mouthed.

“I just can’t do it,” Jiho finishes, in tears. “It’s not her fault but I want to do this and I don’t want to talk to her and I can’t see her ever again, and I hate it,” she shouts.

“She wants to talk to you,” he says quietly, and she shakes her head furiously.

Jiho transfers schools after that.

She does her routines today well, not perfect, but this girl from the other side of the country still manages to get a better overall score. It pushes Jiho to 5th place. Binnie is better than Jiho so obviously, if she tries her best she’ll get a better score and knock Jiho out of the team. Jiho’s dream is on the line and yet it’s kinda funny, because it’s Jiho’s dream and not hers, so why is she responsible for it? It’s unreasonable, don’t you think? It’s not her fault that Jiho stopped wanting to be friends.

So Binnie just goes and gets her near perfect score because she can’t not do it she can’t mess up her own dreams she can’t disappoint her parents she can’t do it just for Jiho.

She can’t.

Eighteen years old at the Olympics and Binnie finishes in third place during the balance beam finals. The team’s only medal.

Jiho realizes the hopelessness of the whole situation from her bedroom floor, that it wasn’t just bad luck leading them there. Even if Binnie had broken her leg or something the way Jiho had wished for a half second on the worst night nothing would have changed. Days before she had seen the other countries celebrate after the team all-around - belatedly, she thinks about the importance of synergy.

She doesn’t want to quit, but without her lofty goal of the world’s eye on her it’s just not worth it anymore. The junk food tastes good. She decides to enroll in a liberal arts college.

It could have been different if she had stopped being so scared and apologized for letting it get this bad.

When the euphoria fades off in the evening after the celebrations Binnie has this flicker of a question in her mind asking her what’s next. She brushes it away and it comes back hours later when she’s lying on her bed in the hotel room, staring at the ceiling.

“Binnie, did you hear me?” her brother repeats from beside her, where he’s standing with a cheerful tired smile. Binnie sits straight up, blinking a few times.

“Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t,” she answers.

It didn’t hurt the most when she fell off the bars at 13 years old and needed surgery on her ankle and it didn’t hurt the most when she missed the 2nd place that afternoon by a tenth of a point and her appeal was rejected. Not when it was her own fault for not being careful enough.

He asks her what she wants to do now. Does she want to continue, train for the next Olympics, she can beat her record, she hasn’t reached her peak yet - does she want to retire? Go to university and pursue one of her other dreams?

“You don’t have to decide right now,” her brother reminds her, understanding as ever while she pieces together the thoughts in her mind.

Binnie has worked hard but maybe this should be the end. Why was she doing this again?

It hurt the most when she called Jiho the last time, let it ring, finally gave up and pressed end call, didn’t leave a message the way she had ten times before.

She gets her hair cut short, adds waves to give the look something new. Binnie shows up on campus the first day of school, butterflies even though she’s been through orientation, the place her brother recommended because it had a nice ballet program she could pursue as a side to her major. The nerves are justified when she sees Jiho in the student center a few days later and wants to die.

They have no classes together, and it’s only after she pesters her brother (this betrayal, she hisses, when he pretends he didn’t know, even though he clearly does, she knows they keep in touch) that she finds out Jiho is in a different major.

It is kind of a miracle, Binnie thinks, that they haven’t run into each other directly. Jiho was probably avoiding her intentionally. This is good, because her fear of icy ignorance-

Binnie has a performance lined up before the holidays, just before finals. Her brother pulls up in the driveway where she’s waiting and she walks to the passenger side, to which her brother frantically waves his hand no. She opens the door expecting to see some equipment or a mess of sweatshirts and Jiho is sitting in the seat with her arms folded, looking away from her.

Binnie stares at Jiho’s long straight hair dyed brown for a few seconds. It’s the first time she’s seen it a color that wasn’t jet black.

“Are you guys dating?” she asks incredulously, to which Jiho shouts an indignant NO, turning toward Binnie for just a second. Her face is plain now, without all the makeup Binnie’s used to seeing at competitions.

“She’s going to your holiday event thing, and I’m going too, so I offered to give her a ride,” Binnie’s brother says lightly, ignoring the tension in the air.

Jiho mumbles some kind of rebuttal and Binnie closes the front door, sitting down in the back seat.

The ride there is not quiet because a certain someone insists on blasting music from five years ago and bringing up “old times”. That day Jiho said she would give Binnie the entire world for her birthday. How five-year-old Binnie used to hug Jiho constantly without warning. The way they would always pretend to be mad at each other. Both girls tell him to stop at the same time and immediately shut their own mouths because they don’t want to argue with him in front of each other.

Binnie glares daggers at her brother when she gets out of the car with her duffel bag to change and the whole car ride Jiho has prepared herself to explode when the door slams shut.

Instead she remains quiet.

The sedan stays put in the middle of the road, and they let a few seconds go by before the cars behind start honking and they have to cruise slowly into a parking spot.

He drives to a space at the edge of the lot, nothing surrounding them.

“I miss her so much,” Jiho whispers, face hot.

“Why are you telling me that? I already know.”

They go in the building and see the holiday lights strung all around the lobby. Some girl from the ballet group comes up to Binnie’s brother and tells him she’s been crying backstage for 15 minutes and claims to have forgotten all the routines.

He runs to follow her and Jiho stands in the middle of the crowded room, not knowing what to do. She’s afraid.

She stands there waiting for him to come back and when he doesn’t, she looks for the practice rooms. Binnie’s standing in the hallway, the other girl from before comforting her. Binnie takes a look at Jiho, who asks tentatively, “Are you okay?”

She bursts into tears all over again. “I’m so sorry,” Jiho says, horrified and backing away, but Binnie shakes her head no and runs into her shaky arms.

“Can you please forgive me for what I did? I can’t stand this anymore,” she says. “I don’t care if you don’t want to be friends or anything I just can’t deal with the idea of you hating me anymore-”

“This isn’t true,” Jiho says with a dizzy laugh. “I pushed you away and if anything you have the right to be mad at me.”

“Then why did you ignore me for so long-”

“Because I was scared,” she answers forcefully, “you would reject me and you’d decided I was past worth being friends with anymore and you didn’t care about me anymore-”

“I gave up on you because you gave up on me,” Binnie says. The other girl has left them alone.

“I know and I’m sorry,” Jiho says.

“We were both wrong,” Binnie whispers, holding tighter onto Jiho.

“Go perform,” she responds.

The three of them go out to dinner afterwards. Binnie’s brother shows them the nice pictures he took and hands the camera to Jiho when Binnie’s face looks funny, and they laugh when she fights his stronger arms blocking her from taking it and delete the photo.

They apologize to each other over and over again over the next few days even though the words are hard to get out at first. To say that their fight meant nothing is naive and they both know it.

Even so, it astounds Jiho how easy it is to get back into their old dynamic. Three years of no contact between her and Binnie felt like a wall impossible to overcome, but she forgets the the significance of the sixteen years of close friendship before hand. It is different, sure, and she didn’t expect it not to be, but everything feels like normal again.

“There’s more honesty in our relationship now than there was before, and I really like that,” Binnie comments over the phone weeks later.

“What honesty, so you mean if I ask you what I mean to you, you’d answer you love me more than anything?” Jiho says jokingly.

“I do though,” Binnie says, totally serious.

Jiho coughs for half a minute and Binnie laughs. “Uncalled for,” she manages to say through whatever is stuck in her throat.

“Are you mad at me?” Binnie asks sweetly.

“I could never be,” Jiho answers, wiping the tears out of her eyes.