He never noticed the other scars. The first time they were together was teeth, tongues, and tension—they barely got a glimpse of each other in their haste. Batman left quickly, the first in a long string of ways he denied how much he wanted, and there was hardly any light to see by. The Joker knew he hadn't seen the rest.
The next time was slower, but still more brutal than anything either of them had experienced before. The light was dimmed as all the lights were dim and always would be. But he felt Batman's hands run along them, felt fingers curl and nails dig into the ridges that sporadically covered his body, and he knew the man crushing him to the hard, cold tiles must have felt them as well. It wouldn't be hard for anyone to put the pieces together, and as the thought settled in his head his body arched up, aching, shivering.
The third time he would have to say something. They didn't talk much; there wasn't much to talk about. Batman had inscrutable reasons for coming back. The Joker didn't care as long as he got what he wanted. It was when Batman turned to leave that the Joker realized he wasn't getting what he wanted. He wanted something else, something unnamable and esoteric. He could picture it in his mind, in a way. There were shadows, fleeting, going through motions he had seen on every bad soap opera and none of the good ones. But the shadows were grotesque, twisted, headless, with too many limbs and not enough power to stand on their own, and they scraped and clawed their way through the motions, mimicking something they would never be able to duplicate.
So he asked Batman to stay, and the question was so unexpected that both of them stared at each other, eyes wide and faces blank. The Joker had become an expert at reading expressions through the mask Batman refused to take off, and when the lips that had just moved over his body in the opposite of prayer curled derisively, he simply let his eyelids flutter down. When he lifted them, Batman was gone. The only traces of him were the bruises covering the Joker's stomach and the feeling of being wrung-out and left to dry.
Dim light showed him everything he needed to know. The Joker was covered in scars, and somehow that was unexpected and exactly right at the same time. He didn't know what to make of this, didn't know what to make of the sudden way his jaw clenched and his fingers trembled, so he ignored it.
Bruce was used to ignoring whatever didn't go his way. He had ignored the way the Joker's tongue constantly moved and the way his grin lit up his face in a mockery of happiness until he couldn't ignore it anymore. Then he ignored the way his body moved with the Joker's, how each of their hollows fit against the other's edges, how each time they were together Bruce felt himself being rubbed raw and smooth. Eventually he would become used to the way the Joker's hair looked twined around his fingers, but he could ignore that too.
The feeling that all of this was meant to be was harder to ignore. Not that Bruce thought about it, about destiny or hundreds of faceless women who couldn't take what he wanted to give or someone who knew who he was and didn't expect anything more from him than that. And the way his chest tightened and his breath got shallow at the thought of going out every night was explained by his desire to clean up Gotham's streets. And anything else that might explain it was ignored because Bruce had learned to ignore whatever didn't go his way when he was young enough to want to be older and old enough to understand what the staring meant.
So he ignored all of the scars that he saw on the Joker, especially the ones that reminded him why he never looked in a mirror for longer than he needed to.
When are you going to take off your mask, he asked.
Bruce looked at him, eyes narrowing. It is off.
No. The Joker trailed his middle finger from the center of Bruce's forehead, down along his nose, tugging at his lips and then falling off his chin. It isn't.
Bruce didn't understand why he felt pulled to the Joker. The madman was the opposite of Rachel, who was everything he always hoped he wanted, and he killed semi-innocent people to make a point. No point worth making required death. Bruce had learned this younger than he would have liked to, when his parent's lawyer sat him down and explained that the man was hungry, had a family to support, needed the money, had friends in high places, wouldn't be going to jail, was so very sorry, and wasn't that really the point?
Bruce had kicked the lawyer in the shin, much to everyone's dismay, and wasn't that the point?
It was so easy to imagine slamming the Joker's head into that glass pane, and he had done it without a thought. His mind had been sharp as the Joker's smile, which goaded him until he felt as though he were standing outside of his own body, watching in contempt at just another criminal abusing someone less powerful than he was.
He had done worse to the Joker more times than he cared to remember. Bruce thought of himself as a morally upstanding citizen. He drew lines and didn't cross them. But whenever the Joker was around, the lines blurred and he found that he was plenty capable of immorality. He liked it when the Joker bled at his feet, and the thought kept him up at night, grabbing hold of him and refusing to die.
When he realized what the scars meant, all of them, the small circular burns and the thin criss-crossing lines and the large folds of skin puckered together, he wanted to stop causing the Joker to bleed. He wanted to wrap his arms around the body he was used to abusing and say something meaningful.
When he gathered the courage to do so, the Joker stiffened and waited, expecting something painful to happen. There was a line here, Bruce understood it instinctively. Sometimes it was okay to punch the Joker in the face for every time Bruce had lied about his parents or slam the Joker's head against a table to prove Bruce was strong enough to take out anyone who stood in his way. Sometimes it was okay for the Joker to struggle against Bruce and bite and claw his way through everything he left unsaid. The problem was that the line was thin and transparent, abruptly shifting a few inches one way or another in a microsecond, and the only warning Bruce got was the look on the Joker's face for a fraction of a second before he hid it under all that make-up.
I'll do anything I can to save you, he said.
The Joker grinned against his shoulder. Bruce felt one of the Joker's arms come slowly up to land hesitantly on his back. Well, he replied, slower than his arm had moved. You'll try.
And really, wasn't that just like him?
Memories were quirky creatures. They could hide all day long and suddenly storm you when you thought you were safe, or they could plague you for days and then suddenly vanish as if they had never existed at all. The Joker's memories loved playing with him. They loved egging him on, making bets with each other to see which one could get him to do the worst damage. Not the most, but the worst, because his memories were as sadistic as he was.
Killing someone wasn't the worst you could do to them. In fact, all of his memories agreed that the worst damage was long-term and emotional. Anything physical would heal quickly and be forgotten soon after. Death meant an end to any suffering that might otherwise occur. But emotional scars never healed, or if they did, they left behind marks more telling than physical scars did. The small motions, nervous gestures, quick glances around, time spent alone, withdrawal from people—there were hundreds of ways emotional scars made themselves known. The Joker's memories wanted to see them all.
He had always thought it was funny the way memories worked. The day would start out average, not great because no day was ever great, but not horrible either. And then a memory would surface, clinging to him, and he'd have to go out and do the worst damage he could. It worked for as long as he wanted to remember, until he met Batman. Nothing worked with Batman, and for some reason, he was glad.
The man had enough scars without the Joker adding more to his collection. This wasn't the type of person he needed to make a point to. This was the type of person who was living the point. It was why the Joker was willing to get close to him; it was why he was comfortable with showing Batman his skin and soul. Batman understood him on a level no one else did. It made everything between them so much harder.
Bruce wanted a family. He had wanted a family ever since his had been taken away, and although he could never have the family he truly wanted, he thought perhaps he could have something that would serve as a replacement. Any combination of people would do, as long as he could call them his own.
For a long time, Alfred and Rachel were his family. They still were, in a way—Alfred would never leave unless he wanted to, so he would never leave, and Rachel was someone who had been at the center of his idea of normal and family and love for too long. They both understood him in different ways. They both gave him different things that he needed.
The Joker was different, which was expected since he prided himself on being different in all things at all times. Bruce never felt comfortable with him. They were on the edge of a knife constantly, both balancing precariously and getting cut all the while but too stubborn to jump off of either side onto safe ground. There was no comfort there, but what was there was much more powerful and continued to draw him in, even when he knew he should stop. The Joker would never give him a family, would never want to be part of a family, and when Bruce realized that he simultaneously realized several things. His desire to be close to the Joker outweighed his desire for normalcy and a family; he had been considering allowing a psychopathic madman to become part of his family; maybe the family he had wasn't the family he wanted; maybe what he wanted wasn't something he could ever have.
So Bruce continued to foil and fuck the Joker, always in that order, because whenever he saw that grin he knew someone was going to die, and he just couldn't bring himself to care.
The Joker might have been abused and he might not have. In one way, it didn't matter what had made him the way he was. In another, it was everything.
The Joker had never before thought about love as more than a concept. He hadn't gone farther than trying to picture someone who could be with him, and then it all was too impossible to fathom. He knew what he looked like, after all. He knew what he did. He was proud of what he did, but he knew how most people reacted. It was why he did it in the first place.
Anything that resembled companionship in his life was limited to people who did what he told them and died for it. The people he collected were all eccentric in their own way, but none of them suited the Joker for anything more than helping him prepare for his next plan. It was a waste of time to be looking among them, and the Joker never did.
Sometimes he thought he could see love, when two people held each other and stared at him in terror, but it was always so mixed in with fear and regret and desperation that it was impossible to tell any of them apart. It was only after Batman left him on yet another night without speaking that the Joker realized that maybe love was supposed to be like this. Too many emotions with not enough separation between them and everything mixed together until all he could feel was a dull throbbing in his stomach that never completely faded away.
But the Joker hated that idea because love was supposed to solve all of his problems, not complicate them, and the only thing Batman ever did was cause everything to crash in around them. Whatever they had wasn't any kind of solution, and so it wasn't love. He knew that as strongly as he knew that they would never do anything other than beat each other raw, no matter how many times it seemed like a lie.
When Bruce first spoke to the Joker, surprising him at Harvey Dent's fundraiser, he hadn't known his witty comeback would come true.
Any excuses either of them made were lost one night when the moon shone clear in the sky, even through the ever-present fog and stench of gas emissions and cigarettes left to burn out on cracked asphalt. They could both see clearly, and when Bruce saw the way the Joker's eyes closed when his fingertips ghosted over the marred flesh, and when the Joker noticed how Bruce's eyes softened and caressed and murmured to him, it was simple to listen to the silence and hear everything neither of them had the courage to say.
It was simple to take the Joker back to the Manor, to give away that last part of himself, and when the thought of the Joker knowing everything about him made him smile, Bruce knew the decision was out of his hands. It was simple to show the Joker what love looked like, on a soft mattress with clean sheets and pillows. It was simple to fall asleep beside him, one arm dangling over his waist as if it belonged there.
And in the morning, when Bruce woke up and heard the shower running, he knew something had changed between them, even though it would remain unnamed. But he was allowed to get up and walk into the bathroom, open the shower door and step under the hard, cold spray of water. He was allowed to wrap his arms around the man standing there, to kiss his neck and back and shoulders. Even when the Joker turned his face away, Bruce was able to reach out and turn it back just to see what the Joker's face looked like when it was unadorned with the layers of white and black and red that always covered it. The Joker looked up at him, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
I don't feel like killing too many people today, he said in a tone that suggested he was saying something else entirely.
There was no reply to that so Bruce kissed him and wasn't distracted by the ridges at the ends of the Joker's mouth, for once. Usually he would glide his tongue over the scars, or touch them, but just then all he did was run a hand through the Joker's hair and another around the back of his neck. Bruce was good at ignoring whatever didn't go his way, and the words the Joker said and the scars that covered him were no match for the clash of their tongues and teeth.
And when everything finally fell together, all the pieces dropping like bodies in front of a firing squad, the last thought Bruce had was that the Joker's make-up didn't disguise him at all.