The first time Meng Ling and Ben Watkins are mentioned together in the same article, Ben is seventeen and stupid and naive.
"Look," Ben's mom says when she sees the article, "you've got competition," and Ben laughs because he hasn't had any real competition since his brother was taller than him, and he's had six years since then to get even better.
He looks at the article later, though, at the grinning, smiling face of the hotshot kid from China who's been picked by UNC, and thinks, we'll see.
He keeps an eye on Meng from then on, watches highlights on YouTube when he's bored, reads articles that compares them, tries not to listen when people call Meng the most promising player of their generation. He's better. He knows he is.
"Man, let it go," his brother says when they talk about it. "Why you gotta be the best?"
"I worked for it," Ben says. "I deserve it."
"Well, then prove it," his brother says. "Don't just whine to me about it."
They meet for the first time before their first game against each other, just a casual media event where they shake hands and Ben says through his smile, "We're going to destroy you," and Meng says, "You're welcome to try."
Meng has a great smile, charming and infectious, and he's a natural with the cameras and the reporters, shyly talking about the differences between China and the United States, about playing for such a great team. Ben watches him out of the corner of his eye while he talks to the reporter from the Washington Post and has to ask her to repeat the question when he spends too long staring at the way Meng's cheek dimples.
His hands are shaking in the locker room, adrenaline coursing through him and making his heart pound before he's even seen the court. It's just a game, not even a particularly important one – but he's excited, he realizes, to finally have someone to challenge him.
Ben meets Meng's eyes across the court when they come out. Meng lifts his chin sharply in acknowledgement. Ben grins.
It's a brutal game, fast and nasty with Meng talking smack every time he's within earshot of Ben. Ben grits his teeth and reminds himself that he's doing himself a favor by not hitting him. Meng scores a ridiculous number of UNC's goals, giving Ben a smirk every time, but Ben scores the winning point just as the buzzer sounds.
He catches Meng's eye as his teammates pile on him; he smiles, nastily, and Meng narrows his eyes at him.
"Good game," he tells Meng when they shake hands after. "Looks like I've bested you."
Meng smiles slowly. "For now," he says, and he gives Ben a look that is half-admiring, half-furious.
Ben knows the feeling.
Ben will never admit it to anyone, but he keeps a mental tally of their games, a running total of who wins and loses at each encounter. It's childish and stupid, because he should be focusing on just making himself the best he can be, but at some point Meng has become the measuring stick by which Ben determines his own ability.
After one particularly awful game his junior year, he ends up at a bar with the guys from his team, all of them too subdued to bother trying to find a party on campus to go to. They drink until they're kicked out, and then they find another bar, which is how they find the UNC team doing tequila shots to raucous applause.
Meng is leaning over one of the point guards, who is lying on a table with a trail of salt on his stomach, and laughing, wide and open. Ben watches as Meng leans down to lick the salt off before tossing back his shot and sucking the lime out of the point guard's mouth. There's a shiny patch on Meng's neck, like someone has done a shot off him, and Ben wonders if it would still taste salty.
"Ugh," says one of Ben's teammates, "let's find somewhere else," and Ben agrees, but he glances back over his shoulder once and sees Meng watching him with a small smirk, eyes hooded and a shot glass dangling gracefully from his fingers.
Ben flips him off and lets himself get dragged off towards a different bar.
He tries his hardest not to think about it, about the way Meng's mouth looks when it's curled up in a smirk or the way he always watches Ben with this look of amusement and something else, something dark and feral. But it's hard, sometimes, not to remember the slow drag of Meng's tongue over his teammate's stomach, the ease and grace he had.
Three days later, Ben gets into a screaming fight with his boyfriend about college and the future, which ends in them breaking up messily and Ben calling his mom to sulk. "He was, what, the third of this year?" his mom asks, sounding kind of sad, and Ben sighs.
"I wish it were easier to do this," he says.
"You just have a lot of drive," his mom says. "Some people just don't understand that. You're very –"
"Focused," suggests Ben.
"I was going to say stubborn as a pig, but that sounds much nicer," she agrees. Ben lets out a snort and flips channels until he finds something suitably mind numbing to watch. He can hear his roommate having sex in the next room, and he's ready to throw his remote at the screen.
"Honey," his mom says, breaking through his rage spiral, "what is going on with you?"
Ben opens his mouth to say something, and then he thinks, suddenly, about the curve of Meng's smirk, and says, "Fuck."
"Ben!" his mother exclaims, but he's too busy having an internal freak-out to care about the ensuing scolding.
The thing is, Ben doesn't care that much about being gay; he got over that when he was fifteen and watching Liam Thomas give a press conference about how being gay doesn't mean anything, it's just another facet of who he is, and can he please get back to playing football now? But having a thing for his rival – Ben is not going to call it a crush – is out of the question. He can't have anything in his life that messes with his game.
He lets his teammates take him out to a bar to commiserate over being dumped and goes home with a sophomore who is wearing a Ke$ha shirt out of some misplaced sense of irony and has very boring sex. Ben doesn't leave his number and the sophomore doesn't offer his.
To combat the restlessness that has settled in under his skin, he pushes himself harder at practice and during games, schedules time at the gym when normally he'd be out with friends. The draft is coming, and he intends to be the best.
By the time the draft combine rolls around, Ben has himself mostly convinced that he just likes the way Meng plays, nothing more, and he goes in confident. Meng, of course, is there with that smirk like he knows something and he shakes Ben's hand, saying, "Good luck," before heading off in the opposite direction.
Ben's hand tingles.
The night of the draft, after they've all talked to the press and hugged their families and met whatever representatives of their new team were there, there's a party at some ritzy New York hotel. Ben gets dragged there by one of the guys he met during the combine, another guy from Southern California, about an hour south of Lancaster, and has been drafted by Nets.
"Come on, Watkins," he says, laughing as he pushes him into a cab, "sorry Meng beat you, but dude, you're in the NBA! Live a little."
Ben gets lost in the crowd, ends up with a beer in his hand but no one to talk to, so he wander through the insane hotel suite, wondering how this is his life now. He spots Meng in the corner, holding court with a girl on his arm. He's flushed a dull red, eyes glassy, and he's laughing a little more openly than usual, throwing his head back.
The girl at Meng's side narrows her eyes as Ben approaches, her manicured nails tightening on Meng's arm. Meng looks up and sees Ben. A strange expression flickers over his face, too fast to parse, and then he's excusing himself from his little crowd of admirers.
"Watkins," he says when he draws near enough for them to hear each other over the music.
"Meng," Ben says. He hesitates, then decides that he can be a grown-ass adult about this and holds out his hand. "Congratulations."
Meng smiles slowly and shakes Ben's hand. "You too, man. Guess we'll be seeing each other around."
And then there's this weird pause where neither of them let go of each other's hands, the two of them staring each other down. Meng tightens his grip a little, enough that Ben feels like he should protest, and says, "Is that all?"
Ben looks down at their joined hands, then back up. "Unless you have something else you want to do." He doesn't mean for it to sound like a challenge, but he can't help the confrontational edge that slips into his voice, and it's worth it for the way Meng straightens, eyes narrowing.
Meng laughs, but not meanly, and says, "I have a room here."
And that's how Ben ends up pressing Meng against a window looking out over Times Square, Meng's teeth nipping at the skin underneath Ben's left ear, and both of their ties and jackets abandoned on the floor behind them. Meng fights him more than any of Ben's past boyfriends, pushes back for control and shoves Ben onto the huge, stupid bed and laughs when Ben glares at him.
It's fun. Ben is startled to realize that this is the most fun he's had outside of basketball in ages, and he can tell that Meng feels the same from the way he looks at Ben as he gets one hand between their hips, amazed and exhilarated at the same time. Ben arches up when Meng gets his hand on his cock and swears and Meng laughs again, wide and open and it's perfect.
Meng collapses on Ben after they both come and says, "Fuck," into Ben's sweaty shoulder. Ben absently strokes Meng's hair and says, "Yeah."
Ben dozes off at some point and when he wakes up, Meng is standing at the window, staring out at the still-lit city with a soft, pensive look. Ben leans up on his elbows to admire the way the light highlights Meng's strong cheekbones, the definition of his arms and abs.
"I used to dream about this," Meng says suddenly. He glances over towards Ben. "About being drafted. Being here." He gestures out over the city. "It seemed so far away. And now –"
"You worked hard for it," Ben says.
"So did you." Meng turns and comes to kneel on the edge of the bed. "You know," he says, "for four years we've been competing against each other and I still don't know anything about you."
Ben links his arms behind his head and smiles slowly. "Well, you got me at your mercy now."
Meng's lips curve up in an answering smile, that sharp, competitive smile that has troubled Ben for four years now. "I do, don't I?"
"Anything you want to know," Ben says, and he's startled to realize that he means it.
Meng looks considering for a moment, then shakes his head. "We have the rest of our careers for that," he says, and he yanks the bedcovers down with a devious smirk.
Ben really should have known that Meng would treat this like a competition, too.
The first time the Mavericks and the Bobcats meet for a game, Meng finds Ben after the game (Mavericks win, but only just) and says, "Drink?"
Ben considers saying no, because he's angry and wants to go back to his hotel room to sulk, but he likes the idea of fucking the smugness out of Meng, so he says, "Sure," and goes back to Meng's house, a surprisingly chic and modern apartment on the seventeenth floor of a new high-rise in the heart of Dallas.
Meng is an absolute asshole in bed, daring Ben to fuck him harder, scratching marks into Ben's arms that are going to be hard to explain if anyone sees them, and Ben finally covers Meng's mouth with one hand to get him to shut up. Meng laughs and pulls Ben down for a kiss instead and that's, well. That's fine by him.
They stay up late talking in the dark, not looking at each other but trading stories of growing up spending all their extra money on stuff for basketball, of missed dates and failed relationships and arguments with family. Meng talks about growing up in a huge block of apartments in Beijing and learning to speak English by watching television and not understanding a lot idioms when he first came to the United States.
"Your language makes no sense," he says, and Ben wants to defend English, but he kind of agrees.
"What do you miss most about home?" he asks Meng.
There is a thoughtful pause, then – "The crowds," he admits. "I know that's weird, but – it was easy to blend in. Here? Not really."
Ben hums thoughtfully and starfishes out until his foot bumps against Meng's. "You weren't born to blend in," he says.
In the morning, Ling makes Ben breakfast but makes him pay for his own cab, and Ben flips him off as the cab is driving away. He pays the cabbie extra to keep him quiet, but has his agent call the company anyway. He's not an idiot, despite the evidence to the contrary.
The next time they play against each other, Ling comes over to Ben before the game and says hello, asks about Ben's mom and brother. Ben tells him about his brother's new girlfriend and her cat obsession and Ling laughs where he's supposed to and tells Ben about his sister's gymnastics. When Ling jogs away, one of Ben's teammates elbows him and says, "Didn't know you were friends with Meng."
Ben shrugs and says, "Yeah."
"Huh," his teammate says.
They're both nominated for Rookie of the Year and all every damn sports news source can talk about is how different but how good both of them are, how it's been a strong year for both of them but it'll depend on whose team gets farther in the playoffs. Ben pushes himself harder in practice until the trainers warn him to take it easy so he doesn't burn out and he goes home and broods over ESPN on his tablet.
The Bobcats get knocked out in the Conference Semifinals and the sour taste of defeat sticks with Ben all the way until the NBA Awards when, as if to add insult to injury, Ling wins the Rookie of the Year award and Ben has to smile like he isn't furious and disappointed.
"It's just a stupid award," his brother says, and Ben shakes his head wordlessly. It is a stupid award in a lot of ways, but that doesn't change the fact that it's validation, proof that what he's spent his life working towards hasn't been a complete waste. That someone values his contributions to the sport. That maybe, in twenty, thirty years they'll talk about Ben Watkins the way they still talk about Shaq and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
"Hey," Ling says later when they run into each other at a bar, "no hard feelings, right?"
"Isn't this the part where you say, 'It should have been you'?" Ben asks, raising his eyebrows.
"No," Ling says, "I deserved it," and the smile he gives Ben is one of those awful, smug ones that makes Ben want to punch him and kiss him at the same time.
"Fuck you," Ben bites out.
"Not with that attitude," Ling says.
Ben glares at him and stalks off to the bar to buy himself a drink, gets even more furious when Ling says, "His drink's on me," with that smirk that says he knows Ben won't say no, and tosses back the shot before slipping his extra key card into Ling's pocket and hissing, "Room 1401."
He has to sign a couple of autographs on his way out; he gives them all his best media smile and takes a cab back to his hotel to avoid any more distractions. That same restlessness he associates instinctively with Ling has settled back in, and he doesn't know if anyone else can understand it, can understand why he's driven so hard to be the best. 'Good' isn't good enough.
Ling arrives about half an hour later. His shirt is open by one more button than before, and his hair is mussed, and Ben growls a little at the sight.
"Possessive?" teases Ling, and Ben takes off his shirt.
"Come prove you deserve that award," Ben says, and Ling takes up the challenge with a smirk.
It isn't exactly what Ben would call a relationship; it's too fraught for that. But he doesn't know what to call this thing of theirs, where they fuck because they like each other and because they don't know any other way to be. And they've gotten to the point where Ben knows all of Ling's little quirks, the way he taps his fingers when he's thinking and runs his hands through his hair when he's frustrated. The way he smiles when Ben kisses him.
At some point, they'll have to deal with this, but for now, for now they have this, Ling thrusting his hips forward and Ben holding onto the bedpost for balance, both of them probably making too much noise and neither of them really caring.
Two years, one championship title, and countless hotel rooms later, Ben squares off against Ling at Cairo, the weight of the USA jersey heavy across his shoulders, and smirks at him.
Ling grins and says, "We're going to destroy you."
"You're welcome to try," Ben says, and Ling laughs, the glow of competition lighting him up, and Ben knows that this, this is what they've been working for their whole lives – the moment where the world's eyes are on them, the pressure so heavy it becomes laughable, and the two of them facing off as they were always meant to.