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Theories of Conflict

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Anthony “Racetrack” Higgins was, he swore on his life, going to make his senior of high school the best of his life—an easy goal, really. When you’re a senior, the world is your oyster. They give you whatever you want. Race felt like the king of Duane High School as he waltzed into AP biology with all the expected grace of a dancer and collapsed into a seat next to his best friend Albert, who was glaring at him. Race offered a dazzling smile in return as he slung a strap of his book bag over the back of his seat. “Whassamatter, Bertie Boy?”

“I can’t believe I let you talk me into AP biology,” Albert grumbled.

“Ah, c’mon, you’re smart enough. It’ll be fun!” Race assured him, lightly smacking his shoulder with the back of his hand.

Albert groaned. “You and Specs are the only reason I passed regular Bio. How the hell am I—”

“You forget yourself, Albert. You aren’t going to pass this class. I am going to pass this class twice, but once will be under a false name that just so happens to be your name.” Another dazzling, scrunched up smile as this stupid boy delighted in how smart and hilarious he was.

Albert rolled his eyes so hard, his whole head went with them. “If I fail this class and don’t get into college and never get a job, it’s your doorstep I’ll be on.”

“Sounds good to me! We can have a bachelor pad, and I’ll be the smart, successful one, and you can be the bum!”

“Oh, fuck you.”

The teacher stood up from her desk at the front of the room, calling for quiet. Once the classroom had mostly settled down, she began to talk. “Alright, class. Welcome to AP Biology. Before we get started, we have a new student joining us.” She motioned towards the doorway, and twenty-five sets of eyes followed her.

This new student was gorgeous. Black hair, piercing brown eyes, and a very confident presence about him. He looked rather angry as well, but most noticeably, he was short. Like, real short. 

Race’s eyebrows went up, and he leaned diagonally backwards towards Albert, still facing towards the new kid. “Oooh, what do we have here?” he said, much in the way one would ask what ever happened to romance.

“He just moved into the area,” the teacher went on, “so let’s add ‘making a good impression’ to the long list of reasons I expect you all to be on your best behavior in this class.”

Albert hissed out of the corner of his mouth. “I swear to god, Race, if you ditch me in this class for a pair of biceps—”

Race shushed him. How was he supposed to plan the speech he would give his children about meeting their father on the first day of AP Biology with all that racket?

The teacher let out a long-suffering sigh. “Albert DaSilva and Anthony Higgins, you are seniors at this school. Do not make me separate you like third graders.”

Race offered her a glowing and oh-so-innocent smile. “Sorry, Mrs. McNamera.”

She shook her head. “Alright, I’m passing out the syllabus. Please take one and—”

Race had already zoned out on what little he could see of the new guy’s ass through the back of his chair.

It was a good twenty minutes later when Albert smacked his arm, jerking him out of his fourteenth daydream involving himself, the new kid, and the stairwell by the gymnasium. Mrs. McNamera was in the middle of explaining the big project for the semester—a research paper and presentation. It was going to be a partnered project, and it would last throughout the whole semester. She passed a stack of papers to a kid in the first row, and he took one packet, passing the pile on to his neighbor. Mrs. McNamera started going down her list, partnering kids up.

“I used a random generator to make these pairs, and they are final, so I don’t want to hear any complaining,” she explained. “You’re all big kids. You can handle it. Please raise your hand when I call your name. Kayley Atkins and Hope Carlisle. Donovan Reynolds and Samantha Logan. Anthony Higgins and Sean Conlon.”

Race lifted his hand up as he heard his name, but then froze, his face twisting in surprise and confusion at the name matched with his. He shot a look at Albert, who raised his eyebrows in recognition, and then his eyes widened and his jaw dropped a tiny bit, eyes fixed on the front row of desks, where Sean Conlon had raised his hand. Race whipped around to see what Albert had seen, and his jaw dropped completely in horror as he realized that the painfully gorgeous new kid was none other than Sean Conlon.

Mercifully, the next period was lunch, and the instant the bell rang, Race and Albert piled their stuff haphazardly into their bags, and darted out the door.

Sean Conlon?” Race nearly shrieked as they walked quickly towards the cafeteria, putting distance between themselves and the classroom as fast as they could without actually running.

“Would you keep your fuckin’ voice down?” Albert scolded him. “Maybe it’s not the same guy.”

“No way, I’d recognize that bastard anywhere,” Race hissed.

“Yeah, except ya didn’t,” Albert pointed out flatly, and Race smacked his chest.

“Shut up, I just needed my memory jogged. I was a bit distracted cause he’s hot, now?

“Who’s hot, now?” asked one Jack Kelly as he fell into step beside Albert.

Albert scoffed. “Sean Conlon.”

“Woah.” Jack frowned. “Wait, hold up— ‘Spot Conlon’ Sean Conlon?” He looked past Albert to Race. “Called you gay and broke your nose in third grade Sean Conlon?”

Race whined, nodding. “He just moved back, and now he’s my partner for the semester project in AP Bio.”

“Shit. He still short as hell? I’ll kick his ass for ya.”

“He’d snap you like a twig,” Albert said. “The dude looks like he shoots up protein powder.”

Race whined again, twisting his noodley self around as if he could physically dodge the existence of Spot Conlon. “He’s fucking beautiful. Why does God hate me?”

“God hates fags, remember?” Albert said casually, and Jack smacked him on the back of the head.

Race laughed. “Fair point.”

The three found an empty table and sat down. Race immediately put his face on the table and groaned loudly and unhappily.

“Think he remembers you?” Albert asked, producing a Capri-Sun, then another, then—oh my god, how many Capri-Suns were in his backpack, where were his books?—another, then a few extras.

Blindly, Race reached out and pawed around the table, searching for a Capri-Sun. His hand landed on Albert’s, and he lifted his head to look at him. “Aww, babe!” He wiggled his eyebrows and then dropped his head back into the table. He continued his search until his hand connected with crinkly foil, and he dragged a Capri-Sun towards his head. “God, I hope not. If he’s forgot, I can just pretend none of it ever happened and it’ll be fine and he’ll only hate me as much as any average hot guy.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Albert said. “I don’t hate you.”

In perfect synchronicity, Jack and Race both reached over and smacked Albert.

“Ow!” Albert exclaimed, over-dramatically as always.

“Nyeh, shuddup,” Race grumbled, finally sitting up and pulling a paper bag out of his backpack. He unceremoniously dumped his lunch on the table, then looked up in time to see Jack and Albert’s deer-in-headlights expressions for approximately half a second before a voice—one that was new but oh so familiar—right behind him said, “Uh, Race?” Eyes as big as dinner plates, he froze, not even breathing. Maybe it’d go away if he passed out…

“ still go by that?”

Race made a sound rather like a deflating balloon as he let his breath out and turned to face the boy behind him. He hoisted a strained smile onto his face, and met the eyes of his childhood bully for the first time in years. “Yeah, mostly.”

Sean Conlon, also known as Satan himself, the bane of eight-year-old Race’s existence, nodded. “Cool. Well, uh, I kinda need your contact info.”

“Right, yeah, that’s a thing.” Race nodded. His face felt entirely detached from the rest of him as he kept smiling, and he held his hand out for Spot’s phone. “I’ll put my number in and you can just text me so I have yours too.”

“Sure, sure.” Spot handed over a black iPhone that was at least two generations out of date, then shoved his hands back in his pockets.

Race punched his number in and handed it back. Spot’s fingers brushed against his as he took it, and Race tried his damndest not to wince.

“Thanks,” Spot said. “I’ll see you around.”

“Yeah, sure.” Race continued cringe-smiling at him until he was at least thirty feet away, then whirled around to slam his face into the table again, groaning loudly.

“Holy shit,” Jack laughed incredulously. “What kinda Hercules-ass transformation did he go through?”

“I’m dyyyyying,” Race whined into the table.

“Oh my god, turn him gay—it’s the ultimate revenge!”

“I’m pretty sure he came in his pants just looking at the guy,” Albert interjected. “If they actually had sex, he’d probably burst into flames.”

Race chucked his stolen Capri-Sun at Albert’s face.

“Why are you booing me?” Albert asked through a mouthful of whatever actual food he had for lunch—possibly a congealed block of Capri-Sun. “I’m right.”

“No, you’re a bastard,” Race muttered into the table.

“‘S my mother’s fault, not mine.”

Race sat up and found more things to throw at Albert. Mostly more Capri-Suns.

“Woah, okay.” Jack deflected the crossfire. “Let’s settle down a little. Race, you haven’t seen Conlon in, what, eight years? People change. It’ll probably be fine.”

“And if it ain’t, we’ll skunk him.” Albert gestured to Jack in agreement. “Sure, he’s jacked, but he can’t stop all of us. Like Area 51.”

Race sighed, dragging a hand through his hair, leaving it all standing on end, like a startled echidna. “Yeah, you’re probably right...”

“Of course, we’re right,” Jack said resolutely, then went back to eating his corned beef sandwich as if the world hadn’t been flipped on its head.

After dinner, Race had flopped down in the living room, taking up ninety-percent of the couch as he lay across it diagonally, with one leg kicked up over the back, and his head very near to falling off the edge of the cushion he was laying on. The TV was on, and Race was staring at the screen with only mild interest as National Treasure played. Mrs. Higgins called from the kitchen, asking him to turn it down. He grabbed for the remote, holding his other hand in a resolute fist in front of him as he muttered along with the movie, “I’m gonna steal the Declaration of Independence.”

Joel and Rachel Higgins had first opened their arms to Race when he was twelve, just on the edge of being an unwantable adolescent. The adoption papers were signed about eight months later, and they had adored him ever since. It was a perfect match, really. They got the little boy they’d always wanted, even if he wasn’t that little, he’d gotten the family he’d always wanted, and he didn’t even have to change school districts.

Mr. Higgins walked through the living room, affectionately clapping Race’s knee that was hooked over the back of the couch.

“Hey, Sport. Good day?”

Race groaned. “Dad, oh my god.”

Mr. Higgins held up his hands in surrender. “Okay, okay, just thought I’d try it out. No ‘Sport’, got it.”

“Yeah, that’s a hard pass,” Race snickered, a shit eating grin spreading across his face at his almost pun.

Mr. Higgins chuckled. “Alright, we’ll stick with ‘Bud’ for now.” He settled into the recliner next to the couch. “How’d your last first day of school go?”

Race shrugged, though it didn’t really work right, hanging upside down on the couch. “Mostly uneventful, and then very eventful, and then full of existential dread.”

Mr. Higgins frowned. “Do elaborate?”

“So in third grade, there was this kid, Sean. He was a real dickwad, and I was his favorite punching bag.” He waved his hand dismissively. “You know, called me gay, broke my nose, all that good kid stuff.”

Mr. Higgins nodded and waited for him to continue.

“He moved away, and I mostly forgot he even existed, but,” Race sighed heavily, “turns out he just moved back, switched into Duane, and to top it all off, he’s my partner for the semester-long project in AP Bio.”

“Can’t you ask your teacher to switch partners?”

He shook his head, pressing his lips into a tight line. “She said no changing.”

“But this is a real problem,” Mr. Higgins insisted, a crease appearing on his forehead where is always did when he was unhappy about something. “If she doesn’t listen to you, I’ll talk to her. We can go to the principle, if we have to—”

“Dad, Dad, it’s fine, really. It was ten years ago. People change. I’ll let you know if he breaks my nose again, I promise.” Race smiled reassuringly. The last thing he wanted was for daddy to swoop down and rescue him from big bad Spot Conlon—well, not so big, but definitely bad. Kicking up a fuss and hiding behind his parents was a death sentence if ever there was one.

Mr. Higgins pursed his lips. “If you say so. But if you feel unsafe, it’s okay to get help.” He leaned forward to make closer eye contact with Race. “No one gets to make you feel unsafe for being you.”

A proper smile slid onto Race’s face. “Thanks, Dad. I think it’ll be fine, though. Albert’s in the class, too, and he’s always got my back if shit goes down.”

“Tony,” Mrs. Higgins scolded from the kitchen.

Race bit his bottom lip in a sheepish smile. “If stuff goes down. Sorry, Mom!”

Mr. Higgins tossed a wink in Race’s direction and nodded approvingly.

“My point is,” Race continued, “I got backup.”

“Good. You tell Jack and Al I’ll bail them out if they have to punch someone for you.”

Mrs. Higgins appeared in the doorway, hands on her hips. “Boys.”

“You got it, Dad,” Race snickered.

Mrs. Higgins sighed. “I don’t like the idea of you being around someone with a known record of violence all semester.”

“He was a third grade bully, Mom. I don’t think that really counts as a record. He’s a di—meanie head,” Race very badly dodged saying ‘dickhead’ and continued, “but I doubt he’s actually gonna do anything. It’s just really awkward.”

“If it’s going to affect your ability to focus and do your work, you should talk to the teacher or let us do it,” she argued.

“My work’s gonna be fine, Ma. I’m a genius, remember?”

“Seriously, Tony,” Mr. Higgins butted in. He didn’t really need to say ‘seriously.’ He only called his son ‘Tony’ instead of ‘Bud’ when he was serious. “If you’re uncomfortable, even a little—”

Race wiggled a little so he started sliding off the couch. “I’m uncomfortable with how long this has been the topic of conversation—does that count?”

“Fine, fine.” Mr. Higgins raised his hands in surrender again. “How was your last first day of school, otherwise?”

“It was good,” Race replied, now properly hanging off the couch, with the top of his head resting on the floor. “Nothing else catastrophic, except Albert once again falling in love with about five freshmen girls.”

Both of Race’s parents cringed.

He nodded—well, sort of. “Yup. All of ‘em blonde and clearly even dumber than he is.”

Mr. Higgins hummed disapprovingly. “I won’t be bailing him out for that.”

Race laughed. “You’d go broke before you managed to bail him out of blonde bimbo jail.” Mrs. Higgins cleared her throat pointedly, and Race smiled sheepishly once again. “Sorry, Mom.”

The telltale ding of a text message sounded. He reached into his pocket to pull out his phone, flipping it around right way up, and glanced at the screen.

The text came from an unknown number. “Hi. This is Spot.” Another text came in, then. “Syllabus says we have to pick a topic pretty quick. Any ideas?

Race dropped his phone, and it bounced off his face before hitting the floor.

Mr. Higgins snorted. “You okay, bud?”

“Yeah, fine,” he muttered, sliding the rest of the way off the couch and rolling to sit cross legged on the floor. He grabbed his phone and stared at the message, entirely unsure what to say, and entirely sure that he didn’t want to say anything at all.

The next morning was about an average morning. Race had three bowls of Lucky Charms for breakfast, missed the bus by literally five seconds but managed to chase it down, and got through his first two classes peacefully. Once the bell rang for the end of second period, Race slowly pushed his stuff off his desk and into his bag, trying to delay the inevitable. Alas, AP Biology waits for no man, so Race got his ass up and into the correct classroom. He took his seat next to Albert, and it wasn’t lost on him that they had swapped moods from the first day.

Albert nodded in greeting. “‘Sup, pissy?”

Race grunted in reply, piling pencils onto his desk.

“Oh, come on.” Albert punched Race’s shoulder.

“Heyyy,” he whined. “Why are you such a bully?” He paused and gave a little snort of laughter at his own choice of words. Race was very funny. At least, he told people he was.

Albert rolled his eyes, then turned them towards the door. “Oh hey, look who it is.”

Race turned to see none other than Spot Conlon making a beeline towards him and Albert. A part of Race was delighted by the cinematically ironic timing, but that part was wildly overshadowed by the rock of dread sitting in his stomach.

“Hey, did you get my texts?” Spot asked, with the look of a man who saw the read receipts and was looking to see if Race would lie.

Race met his gaze and pulled on what he hoped was a face of recognition and maybe a bit of regret. “Oh shit, yeah, sorry. I was gonna respond but then I didn’t.”

Albert snorted.

Spot frowned. “Yeah, okay. Well, we gotta talk about it, so maybe we can talk over lunch.” His tone didn’t leave much room for refusal.

“Yeah, okay,” Race answered, already formulating plans to sneak into the rafters of the gymnasium.

Spot nodded and made his way back to the seat he’d claimed on the first day.

Race turned his gaze heavily to Albert. “This. Is the worst.”

Albert pulled a piece of paper out of his notebook and started writing something. Race watched, suspicious, and Albert ignored him. He leaned sideways towards him, trying to read over his shoulder, and Albert elbowed him back into his own seat.

“Don’t mind me—just writing the speech I’m gonna read at your funeral.”

Race whined, halfway laughing. “You suck.”

“Race was my best friend. He died how he lived—a massive twink.”

Race burst into proper laughter. Mercifully, Mrs. McNamera arrived and distracted Race from his impending doom with a review of the levels of analysis.

An hour later, Race shook his hand out, cramped from writing notes. He always took meticulous notes in his classes, not for himself, but to sell to classmates. He’d make copies in the computer lab later and add his own input and tips and such in the margins on some of them. Those he’d charge extra for. First, however, he had to survive lunch with none other than card-carrying homophobe Spot Conlon.

“D’you think he’d notice if we just sent some other curly-haired, blond kid, and I ran away?” Race asked Albert while the classroom churned into motion as everyone packed up their desks and left for the cafeteria.

“Probably.” Albert nodded. “I’ve heard he can smell fear.”

Race groaned, rolling his head around in fit full unhappiness.

Albert shrugged his backpack onto his shoulder. “Good luck. I’ll tell your parents you loved them.” He clapped Race on the shoulder as he stepped past him.

“What? No, you can’t leave me!” he yelped, grabbing ahold of Albert’s hand with both of his own.

“Gay,” Albert deadpanned.

“Thanks for noticing.”

“You’re welcome.” Albert winked and pulled his hand away.

“You’re never around when I need you!” Race wailed at Albert’s back as he walked out of the classroom.

Albert waved over his shoulder as he disappeared out of the door amongst the sea of students, and Race groaned, rolling his head again, but this time his upper body followed as well. He grumbled to himself—stuff like ‘abandonment’, ‘traitor to the cause’, ‘Judas’, and so on—as he finished reloading his backpack. He stood, and found himself face to face with Spot Conlon.

“So,” Spot said gruffly, “any ideas?”

Race sighed, shouldering his bag. “Well, she said it can be whatever we want, so long as it relates to evolutionary theory.”

Spot nodded. “You ever heard of parent-offspring conflict theory?”

“Probably,” he replied flatly, and started walking towards the door.

Spot rolled his eyes. “Cool. You wanna do that, then?”

Race shrugged. “Sure. Why not?” He was uncomfortably aware of the way he was walking, and the fact that Spot Conlon—who was now very hot—was following him. Not that Spot, of all people, would have any interest in Race’s ass.

“I saved the link to a paper on it,” Spot said. “Pretty weird shit, but makes sense when you think about it.”

Race nodded. “Sounds great.” They had established their topic, why was he still following him?

“Dude, would you slow down?”

He smirked, glancing over his shoulder at Spot. “Sorry, long legs.”

Spot narrowed his eyes like he knew it was a dig. Race questioned his decisions.

“So uh...” He looked around awkwardly. They’d made it to the cafeteria, and Race could see Jack, Albert, and another friend, Romeo, sitting at a table near the middle of the room. Albert, having spotted them, elbowed Romeo in the ribs, directing the table’s attention to the doorway. All three grinned, wiggling their fingers at him, and Race sneered back.

“You have a laptop? We could start lit review,” Spot suggested, as if it was the most normal thing in the world to research the evolutionary theory of parent-offspring conflict with the kid you tortured in elementary school.

Race’s sneer turned into a pained smile. “Yeah, sure, let's do that.”