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[personal profile] mithen
Title: This Be the Verse
Relationship: Bruce Wayne/Clark Kent
Characters: Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, Alfred Pennyworth, Dick Grayson, Jean Paul Valley, Superboy, Tim Drake, Cassandra Cain, Stephanie Brown
Continuity: Heroes of the Squared Circle, a DC/pro wrestling fusion (click for notes and all chapters).
Warnings/Spoilers: None
Rating: PG-13
Word Count 3505
Summary: Clark is back, but he discovers that tensions have been rising in the locker room of the DCW.



To be the offspring of a wrestler has its advantages at times, but it also comes with a tremendous amount of pressure. --Adam Kleinberg

“Hey, Pops!”

Startled, Clark turned around to see the Metropolis Kid--he blanked on the real name for a moment before dredging up “Conner Crummet”--heading toward him. He hid a groan: his supposed progeny was not exactly the first wrestler he had hoped to run into upon returning to the DCW. But that wasn’t the kid’s fault, so he smiled at him. “Conner, right?”

Conner stuck out his hand and ducked his head, looking suddenly just a little bashful. “Hope you don’t mind no one ran that angle by you.”

“I’ve been pretty busy,” Clark admitted. “So, have you figured out exactly how, uh, we’re related?”

The boy beamed at him. “Get this: I’m a clone.”

“A...clone.”

“Yeah! Well, not an exact clone. Kryptonian and human DNA combined, so I’m half-human.”

“Who’s the other DNA donor?”

“We don’t know yet. Lots of time to decide! Lots of cool possible angles!”

“You do know the Kryptonian isn’t coming back,” Clark said, but Conner just grinned.

“Not in the same form, sure. But everyone in the locker room is saying you’ll finally do a face turn. That’ll be awesome.” He gestured energetically. “I’m not going to be some sidekick like Robin--not that there’s anything wrong with Robin,” he added hastily, “But it’s just not my jam, you know? My thing’s going to be that I don’t want anything to do with you, right? Like, I’m your clone but I want to be my own person, not your shadow.”

"That sounds fair."

"That means as long as you're a heel, if I want to be a rebel, I have to be some kind of goody-goody, right? Once you turn face, then I can be a tweener: you know, edgy dark lone wolf with a heart of gold? That's my scene, man!"

Clark looked at the sunny smile on Conner's face and had his doubts that "edgy" and "dark" really suited him, but kept them to himself. "I've been watching your work for the last few weeks. Your in-ring technique is great."

"You think so?" For a second, surprised delight blazed across Conner's face. Then he seemed to remember he didn't need Clark's approval and tried to look casual instead, keeping his voice nonchalant. "Thanks, man." He shrugged. "If you've got any tips, I might be willing to listen to them. I suppose."

"Clark!" He turned to see Dick and Tim coming toward them. Tim gave Conner a quick high five as they drew closer, and Dick threw his arms around Clark in a big hug, saying, "Are we glad to see you. How's Bruce? Will he be back soon?"

"Not for a while yet," Clark laughed. "He's doing well, his rehab is going great. Though he drives himself too hard."

Dick and Tim shared a glance. "There's a surprise," Tim said.

"Well, we could all tell he was doing better right away once you tracked him down," Dick said, "Because he began texting us all regularly again. So thanks for that."

"Look," Tim said, drawing closer and looking right and left before speaking. "Things...aren't so good around here right now. The month you guys were gone...without that locker-room leadership and inspiration, things have gotten kind of squirrelly. Jean Paul has tried to step up, but he's, uh--"

"Unstable?" muttered Conner.

"Under a lot of stress," Dick amended. "I mean, there are a lot of egos involved here, and he's not the kind of person who can keep people in line without ruffling a lot of feathers. The vacuum in backstage leadership has been a real problem."

"Well, Bruce will be back soon," Clark said reassuringly as he headed for the locker room. "Even if he isn't able to wrestle, he'll be around again, and that'll help."

Dick blinked at him. "Uh, that isn't who I meant," he said, but before he could go on Tim burst out as if he couldn’t contain himself anymore:

Conner and Tim were staring at him. “Jesus, Dick,” said Tim. “There’s finally someone here who might actually listen to us and help, this is not the time to be diplomatic! I know you want to keep the peace and lead by example, but Jean Paul is a problem--”

“--The only example you’re setting right now is how to take constant shit from someone,” Conner put in. “He treats you worse than anyone here, it’s like he’s got it out for you.”

“Bruce picked him instead of me to be the champion,” Dick said tightly. “It’s not my place to interfere.”

Tim started to say something else, but they were at the locker room door and he fell silent.

Even without Dick and Tim's warnings, Clark would have known right away something was wrong. People were changing clothes without making eye contact, clumped up into little groups and eyeing each other with suspicion. The entire feel of the locker room was askew: closed-off instead of open, sullen instead of energetic.

"Barbara says it's the same with the female wrestlers," Dick said in an undertone as Clark sat down on a bench, frowning. "It's been rough on the new kids--I wish Cass and Steph had come in at a better time."

"I've seen a couple of their matches. Bruce got really excited about them--though he says Brown needs to be less reckless in her moves. He likes the 'Aubergine Avenger' nickname a lot though. They're from Sora?" Clark asked Tim, who nodded proudly. "They've got a lot of promise. You're turning into a really good scout."

"They're probably the best women's tag team out there right now," said Dick as Tim beamed. Then he grimaced slightly. "Well, at least now that Ivy and Harley aren't speaking to each other."

"What?" Clark could hardly imagine the two women apart from each other.

"It's Napier's fault," Tim muttered. "Playing mind games with them, setting them against each other. If Bruce were here he'd tell him to--"

"Kent!" Jean Paul Valley's voice rang out and Clark jumped to his feet just in time to be swept up into a hug. "It's good to see you again. And how is Bruce? Will he be coming back to reclaim his belt soon?" There was a complicated mix of emotions in his voice: concern, yes, but below that Clark could hear reluctance, even hostility. And below even that--something like hope?

"His rehab is going well, Jean Paul," Clark said. He noticed various wrestlers were watching his reception by Jean Paul, noticed how some of their faces went shuttered and closed at seeing them hug. Jean Paul was making enemies backstage as belt-holder, it seemed.

"I'm glad to hear it. His were big shoes to fill." Jean Paul was smiling, but there was a strain in it. "Is it true that the Kryptonian is--"

He broke off as Copperhead entered the locker room and called out: "Nathan!"

Nathan Prince froze for a second, then kept heading to his locker. "Yeah, Valley?"

"You were late on that spot with Nightwing. He could have cracked his skull out there thanks to you."

"But I didn't, Jean Paul," said Dick, "It worked out fine."

Valley rounded on him. "Stop making excuses for him. Stop making excuses for everyone," he snapped. "Maybe your parents coddled you, but mine taught me how wrestle the right way.” Clark saw Dick’s jaw clench as Valley shook a finger in his face. “Trust is everything. If you can't trust your partner, you're doomed. Trust must be earned, and if it's lost, a price must be paid." He turned back to Copperhead. "Meet me in the practice ring in fifteen minutes and we'll go over that spot until you get it right."

"Got it," said Nathan. He was smiling, but his forehead was beaded with fresh sweat.

Clark frowned as Jean Paul gathered up his things and left the locker room.

"I know, I know," Dick said. "And if he wasn't twice as hard on himself as he is on everyone else..." He trailed off and shrugged, holding up a weary hand as if to forestall an argument from Tim that he’d heard many times before.

Conner shrugged. "I mean, we do put our bodies on the line, and if the person we're wrestling with messes up--look what happened with Bane and your mentor, huh?" He looked at Dick and Tim, eyebrows raised. "We've got to be at the top of our game all the time. Sure, he’s kind of off the rails, but he’s got a point."

"Kent!" Mercy Graves stood in the doorway of the locker room. "Mr. Luthor would like to see you."

"How'd he even know I was here already?" muttered Clark. "Never mind, I should know better."




"Dont bother to whine about how you won't play the Kryptonian, I already know that," said Luthor. "Have you finished your walkabout or vision quest or whatever it was? Are you ready to get back to wrestling?"

"I've got some ideas for a--"

"--let me guess, a face turn." Luthor rolled his eyes. "I still think it's a mistake, you know. I think you make a natural monster heel. But if you just can't handle it anymore, I'll let you commit career suicide if you must. The Kryptonian's been gone for a month and we've gotten by just fine. Ratings have actually gone up."

"Thanks to the new talent Tim Drake's scouted for you."

Luthor's face shadowed with a frown for a moment, then smoothed again. "Maybe. And maybe it's our new belt holder."

"I wanted to talk to you about Valley too," said Clark. "I don't think he's a good influence in the locker room."

Luthor almost smiled. "It's just like you, Kent, to think you can take off for a month to find yourself and then come back and start making pronouncements about influences in the locker room. Ratings are up, and that's the bottom line." He drummed his fingers on the desk briefly. "I assume you'd like to wait until Wayne gets back to turn the Kryptonian. He's always had some idea that the Dark Knight has to be involved in that face turn. I'll even allow that, because that's the kind of caring, empathetic boss I am." This time he did actually smile, but the result was not notably empathetic. "For now, we’ll be using you as a backstage interviewer. And Kent?”

Clark turned back from the door. “Yes?”

“Tell Bruce there’s no need to push his recovery. We’re doing just fine without him.”

As Clark let the door swing closed behind him, he didn’t feel so certain of that.




At the show next week, Clark slipped into his seat at the Baltimore Auditorium, looking up at the ring from the floor. He hadn't seen it from this position in years, he realized--it looked bigger here, more imposing. He was so used to it as a workplace that sometimes he forgot to think of it as a theatre. Next to him on one side was a middle-aged man and woman; on the other a frazzled mother with two small sons who were jumping up and down on the seats and screaming.

Maybe he needed to look at it from a different angle.

The children shrieked with joy when the Black Bat come out in a whisper of dry ice and an ominous murmur of music to fight Harley Quinn: "How can she even see well enough to fight in that mask?" said the couple to each other. "She's amazing." And she was: lithe and agile, she sold every blow as if it were utterly lethal. Clark watched, amazed afresh at the magic of the illusion, the way she and Harleen made it look as though this was a vicious battle, the cooperation and practice never allowed to shine through the facade of antagonism. There was one small slip, when Black Bat delivered the Mark of Cain, the Northern Lights suplex that was her trademark. Her timing was a fraction off and there was a moment when it looked like Harley was going to land on her neck, but she quickly compensated and pulled the move off. For such a young wrestler, she was amazingly skilled: no matter how closely Clark listened, he couldn’t hear any audibles being called by Quinn. It was as if Cain could simply tell what the other wrestler was going to do before she did it and adjust accordingly, and Clark was probably more impressed than the fans around him, watching her.

Dick Grayson’s match against Deathstroke was also fantastic: all the people around him jumped to their feet when Nightwing’s music hit, and he could hear the young female fans behind him giggling with delight. Apparently they had brought homemade signs that said “I [heart] Dick” and were brandishing them with glee.

“Deathstroke the Terminator,” said the guy on his right, “Could they have possibly come up with a more 90s name?”

“I don’t care,” said the woman with him, “I think he’s hot.”

“Yeah, yeah.” The man rolled his eyes but stopped teasing her.

When the Dark Knight came out, Clark grimaced: Jean Paul had modified the costume again, adding red lenses behind the eyes of the mask and some kind of gauntlets to the gloves in addition to the spiked pauldrons. But the crowd didn’t seem to mind and their cheers shook the rafters as the Dark Knight systematically dismantled the Joker. It must have annoyed Napier to lose so resoundingly to the Dark Knight, and not even “his” Dark Knight--Clark saw his smile twist into a grimace at one point as the Dark Knight pulled his arm up behind his back, and he wondered just how stiff Valley was working. But the match was a good one, the crowd left buzzing with happiness, and Clark still had no concrete reason for the gnawing feeling of unpleasantness in the pit of his stomach.

When he got backstage, however, he was surprised to find Jean Paul Valley, still mostly in his Dark Knight gear, facing down a slight figure in an empty hallway. Clark had never seen Black Bat without her costume and full mask on, and only recognized Cassandra Cain from her stance: the way she stood with her feet planted firmly, fists slightly raised as if ready to take on all comers.

“--shouldn’t be allowed to do the move again until you’ve proven you won’t hurt anyone with it!” Jean Paul’s voice was strident. “I will not have some child endangering the lives of other wrestlers. Have you nothing to say for yourself?” he demanded of Cassandra, who merely glared up at him, undaunted. “Go ahead, then, run off whining to Grayson as your lot always does.”

“Hey!” A young woman with curling blond hair appeared from around the corner and darted in between Cassandra and Jean Paul--Clark recognized her as Stephanie Brown. “You know she doesn’t talk much, so stop barking at her, you big bully!”

Cassandra put out a hand and gently moved Steph aside without taking her eyes off Valley. She patted her friend lightly on the shoulder, the message clear: I can take care of myself. Then she beckoned to Valley with her other hand, a taunt and an invitation.

Sputtering, Jean Paul stepped forward.

“What are you doing, Jean Paul?” Clark demanded, stepping forward, unable to stand by any longer. “I think you need to take a deep breath and relax, brother.”

Jean Paul glared at him, and for a moment Clark thought he might take a swing at him. “This is none of your business, Kent!”

“I have to work here too, so it’s my business.”

“Well, some of us didn’t have the luxury of just leaving for a month,” snapped Jean Paul. ”Some of us had to stay here and hold things together with the belt-holder gone, and I didn’t see you stepping in then! Or are you jealous that Luthor didn’t put the belt on you? You’ve been working here longer than I have--does it hurt to be passed over? Did you think you’d be the natural choice, just like Grayson thought he was the obvious choice? Well, he wasn’t. Luthor picked me. I’m the one with the pull now, and you--and Grayson--had better accept it.”

Cassandra was still standing with her fists up, ready: Clark glanced at her and then at Steph, and she seemed to read his thoughts, taking Steph by the hand and dragging her away, despite Steph’s protests.

“I’m not jealous, Valley,” said Clark evenly, rolling up his sleeves. “And the reason I’m not jealous is because Bruce Wayne is still the champion, and you are holding the belt on a technicality. Why should I be envious of you? You’re no more the champion than I am.” He cocked his fists, looking at Jean Paul. “But if that fact makes you so angry that you feel like you have to hit something, try me instead of someone half your size.” He couldn’t help smiling slightly as he added, “I think your chances might be better with me anyway.”

Jean Paul stared at him, baffled fury and resentment roiling in his face. Then he took a deep breath and seemed to collapse in on himself. “I’m sorry,” he muttered, rubbing his forehead. “It’s just...my father always told me I’d be champion one day, told me how I had to be. I heard so many lectures about how the belt-holder has to be a leader, has to--to keep everyone in line. I’m trying, but it’s hard, and...and I hear my father’s voice in my head at night, chastising me, telling me I’m weak, I need to be stronger, I always need to be stronger…” He looked away, scrubbing at his face, and for a moment the hallway was silent. When he looked back, his face was set. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention this to any of the other wrestlers,” he said, and Clark didn’t know if he meant threatening Cassandra or admitting to his own doubts.

“I won’t tell anyone here,” Clark said. Jean Paul’s eyes flickered, but then he shrugged and shoved by Clark, disappearing into the locker room.




Bruce’s eyes were closed as Clark finished his summary of the last few weeks: “I think he’s trying to be fair, but he’s right on the edge, Bruce. He pushes himself and everyone too hard. He’s never gone quite far enough that anyone has called him out--you can tell some people want to, but he’s just reasonable enough that there’s no support for raising a stink about it. But that means everyone’s on pins and needles, nervous around each other. I don’t care how high the ratings are, that can’t be good.”

Bruce frowned and lay on the sofa, silent for so long that Clark thought he might have fallen asleep. “This be the verse,” he murmured.

Clark snorted and quoted the poem back at him: “They mess you up, your mom and dad / They may not mean to, but they do.”

”They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you,” Bruce continued. He opened his eyes and smiled, dazzling. “But ‘mess’ was not the original verb,’ he noted.

Clark felt himself reddening. “I don’t like to use that kind of language,” he muttered, and Bruce laughed.

”...But they were fucked up in their turn / By fools in old-style hats and coats,” intoned Alfred’s voice as he entered the sitting room carrying mugs of cocoa. ”Who half the time were soppy-stern / And half at one another’s throats.” He raised an eyebrow at the expression on Clark and Bruce’s faces. “I do not believe in bowlderizing poetry, sirs.”

“Jean Paul Valley Sr. was a talented wrestler...and a terrible father,” said Bruce, sitting up gingerly and sipping his cocoa. “I’ve heard rumors of how he treated all four of his sons, the training regimen he put them through, the unrelenting pressure.”

“Have the others turned out as...unstable as our Mr. Valley?” Alfred asked.

Bruce cleared his throat. “The others are all dead,” he said. “Accidents, overdoses or suicides,” he said to Alfred’s shocked expression, “It can be hard to tell them apart, sometimes.”

“Good Lord,” Alfred said faintly.

“He’s gone now, but Jean Paul’s still fighting him every day,” Bruce said. “Trying to prove himself to a ghost. Man hands on misery to man indeed,” he added softly. He drained his cocoa and reached out a hand to Clark. “Help me up,” he said. “I have to get back to rehab. I don’t think we have much time left.”
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