Surviving a traumatic ordeal would usually leave one with scars, both visible and invisible, and more problems than they could count, but it just left Web annoyed more than anything.
He’d gone out with the hopes of finally having time to relax and work and just think without the constant bane of his existence around.
When he and Joe had said their goodbyes at the dock, he’d thought that was the end of it. Barely warm wishes and a fond “fuck you,” and they were walking in opposite directions.
There was a small ache in Web’s chest like something was trying to either kill him or force him to say something else but for the life of him, he couldn’t figure of what it was.
Before he knew it four years had passed and he never went home, instead, choosing to search for a new home or any place that felt like it could be home. Nothing ever felt right. Eventually, he found himself on the San Francisco coast. He wasn’t sure what it was, but something about the coast made him feel simultaneously free and frantic.
It wasn’t until a late night at a small bar that he found out why.
“Of all the gin joints in all the world, Web.”
That voice has his hand, his entire body, frozen in shock. His stomach turns and that ache from four years ago – and intermittently throughout the years – returned to his chest and pulled hard.
He smirks slightly, “I’m cursed to be in the same one as you.”
Rather than take the bait, Joe just laughs and sits across from Web like it’s the most natural thing he’s ever done.
“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were looking for me.”
There’s a spark in Joe’s eyes that Web saw during the war and it causes the ache in his chest to burn, but he ignored it now like he did then.
“What would make you think that?” He takes a careful, measured sip of his bourbon.
“Why the fuck else would you be in San Francisco?”
Web laughs and bites his lip when he bravely makes eye contact with Joe.
“You do realize you’re not the only person in San Francisco, right Lieb?”
Joe licks his lips and takes a deep breath before responding.
“No…uh no one’s called me Lieb in a long time. I missed it if I’m being honest.”
Web just stares in response at the change in subject.
“A part of me still thinks you’ll punch me if I were to call you Joseph.”
Joe smiles bright and alive. He bites his lip, “Joseph, yes. But you can call me Joe for as long as you’d like.”
Web’s eyes widen as Joe’s flutter against slightly flush cheeks. Joe looks uncomfortable for a split second and Web would’ve missed it had he not been staring so intently at the man in front of him, who he thought he’d never see again.
“Joe.” Web tries it out and likes it and finds that ache soothe a little at the admission.
Web closes his eye for a moment, “W-would you actually call me, Web?”
He opens his eyes to see the genuine shock on Joe’s face.
“It’s just that you’re the only person that ever called me that before and I haven’t heard it in so long that i-it kind of grew on me.”
Joe responds softly, “Sure thing, Web.”
Web smiles and nods, “So, how’ve you been? What do you do?”
Joe throws back the last of his drink before signaling the waitress for another.
“I’ve been about as good as I can be since everything, you know? Just trying to make it like everyone else, and I drive a cab. What about you, Ivy League? Put all those snobby brats in their place?”
Web shrugged and took a large gulp of his bourbon. He’d never been good at admitting his failures, but something about the low lights, warm booze, and the easy way Joe was talking to him made him feel like they were in their own little world and that he could admit anything and he’d be okay.
“I left after one day back. Everyone there was so wrapped up in their small, insignificant problems. After everything, uh…overseas, it all seemed so pointless in comparison. I couldn’t take it, so I’ve just been writing and doing odd jobs across the country since then.”
Rather than finding a look of smugness or disappointment, Web just saw a look of recognition and admiration.
“What’re you writing about?”
Web let out a sigh of relief when Joe didn’t press about his leaving.
“Uh, you’ll probably laugh, but it’s about sharks.”
Joe let out a small laugh of surprise but not of ridicule, “Get the fuck outta here, I love sharks. Our aquarium in town is really great, I, uh, I go there a lot actually.”
“I’ve been there a couple times since I’ve been in town. It’s great!” Web smiled wide and watched as Joe’s matched his own.
“I had finally got the permission to do the last survey I needed for my book about three weeks back. I was out on the sea trying to get everything set up when a big sudden storm hit,” Web shivered but continued on, figuring in for a penny and all that, “The boat capsized and I was trapped for three days before coast guard came and got me.”
He knocked back the last of his drink and shrugged with a dry laugh, “Thank god for insurance, right?”
Joe just stared at him for a long, far too long for Web’s sake, moment, emotions flittering through his expression far too fast to read. Among those emotions, Web could always see anger and he saw it now.
“H-how…” Joe trailed off before he stopped and slammed a ten-dollar bill on the table.
“Follow me.” He commanded and started walking like he knew Web would follow, which he did. He didn’t have anything better to do and that ache in his chest was pushing him out of the booth and into the night air.
He didn’t make it fifteen feet from the entrance before Joe was angrily pulling him into the alley beside the bar.
His head slammed against the brick harshly and he winced before focusing his own anger on Joe.
He was about to speak when Joe started, “After everything we’d been through, Web. Everything. And all you do is shrug after you almost fucking die?! Do you have any self-preservation skills at all or are you so fucking careless that whether or not you die is of no concern to you?”
Web looks at Joe as if he’d grown another head. He didn’t expect an outburst like this and he certainly didn’t think Joe care enough to care about his well-being so much.
“Joe, I’m fine. Honestly, I’m more upset that I didn’t get my research than at almost dying.”
“That’s what I’m talking about, Web! You’re so fucking delusional that you can’t even see what’s wrong.”
The ache in Web’s chest was pounding hard against his chest again and he was certain that what he said in the next few moments would impact the rest of his life. He only wished he knew what he was supposed to say.
“I-I don’t know what to say.”
Joe crossed his arms and bit his lips again. Web watched the movement and waited for Joe to speak.
“For the first time in your fucking life, you’re speechless? Now? When I need you to explain something to me the most?”
The ache twisted in his chest and Web was struggling to keep up with the feeling and the conversation with Joe. Maybe that second bourbon wasn’t the best choice.
“I don’t what there is to explain, Joe. I’m fine and alive and that’s enough for me. I’m sorry if it isn’t enough for you, but frankly, I don’t see what you’re so upset or why you care so much.”
The ache was in overload now, and the way Joe was looking at him was doing nothing to soothe it. Web was certain Joe was going to do something drastic and he was trying to brace himself for all possibilities.
Most of all he was trying to figure out why Joe was so upset in the first place, but he couldn’t think of anything before Joe was speaking again.
“You know for a genius, you can be really fucking dense sometimes.”
And before Web knew it Joe’s lips were on is and that ache in his chest was gone and filled with nothing but butterflies and electricity at the way Joe’s lips felt on his own.
He was kissing back instantly, nerves alight with the feeling of finally reaching something he didn’t know he’d been searching for.
Unfortunately, reality and Web’s brain came crashing back down on him as he realized where he was and who he was with.
Joe didn’t swing his way, Web was certain, and even if he did he certainly wouldn’t want someone like Web. It was probably all some cruel joke so he could tell the rest of the guys that they were all right about him.
He pushed Joe away from him as though he’d been burned. He didn’t…couldn’t look up and see Joe’s smug look of discovery that he’d been right.
Web just said, in the smallest voice, “Congratulations, Joe. Jokes on me. You win.”
Before he could listen to anything Joe had to say, he was running down the alley and through town faster than he’d ever run during the war.
Joe watched Web run away and sank to the dirty, cold concrete before the tears finally fell forth.
He hadn’t meant to do that. He hadn’t even meant to go up to Web and talk to him, but he’d never been good at impulse control and the need to see Web’s face and hear his voice again far outweighed his need for dignity and self-respect.
The moment those blue eyes met his, Joe felt like he was back in Toccoa, nervous and scared but mostly excited at what lay ahead of him. The uncertainty of whether or not he’d make it out alive doing nothing to deter his determination.
Then Web smiled and Joe thought, Yeah, it’s exactly the same.
Among the shock and death, and the horrifying things he’d discovered during the war, nothing prepared him for falling in love with Web. Honestly, it wasn’t until halfway through Bastogne when Grant told him to either shut up or write Web a fucking letter that he thought he might have different feelings for Web.
The Hagenau happened and Joe was pissed and relieved and so confused that he wasn’t sure what to do, but he still kept close to Web. Mocking him and teasing him and giving him pointed glares for extra measure to show his disappointment, but inside he was somewhat glad that Web had been spared the frozen hell that had been Bastogne and Foy. When he had time to think about it, the confusion spiraled into something deeper and it gave Joe a headache anytime he tried to put into words how he felt about Web.
The drive before everything changed stills seems like a dream sometimes to Joe.
I guess I’ll finish school first, and then…
Wait a minute, finish school? You mean all this time you’ve been talking about “Harvard this” and “Harvard that” and you ain’t even finished?
For one thing, I haven’t told you anything. But yes, yes, I haven’t finished, so the fuck what?
Web stared at him, challenging him and the sight and sound of it caused a hot flash of arousal shoot through his body so strong he nearly keeled over. There was no confusion in that reaction and Joe quickly gathered himself before he thought of something to say.
All right, Web, breathe a little, Jesus. It’s just the way you always talked, you know? We all figured that…
Web continued to glare, continued to challenge him to say something, anything he didn’t like. The arousal was nearly uncomfortable at that point and in the back of a truck filled with his friends, he didn’t want to start something that would draw attention to himself.
He sighs slightly and ends the conversation as best he could.
You know what, you’re right. So the fuck what.
Joe still refuses to think about it. He knows it happened and that’s horrific enough without remembering having been there. The sights…sounds…smells. Joe’s nightmares have thankfully died down over the years, but when they happen, Landsberg is always the worst of them.
But he actively remembers one thing. Late…or early after everything calmed down as much as it could that day, Web found Joe and without saying a word or anything Web gave him the one thing he needed but would never have asked for.
Web sat down next to Joe on the dirt ground in the woods, far enough away that the sounds and smells were just barely tolerable, and he pulled Joe into his arms and held him as the sobs wracked his body. Joe knows it lasted hours because when Grant eventually found them – Joe asleep on Web’s lap, Web’s hand in his hair – and told them they were supposed to head back into town.
Joe still remembers that the short nap in Web’s lap was the last dreamless sleep he’s had since before Toccoa.
He never mentioned it. Grant never mentioned it. Web never mentioned it. For the life of him, Joe wasn’t ever sure he appreciated or hated the mutual silence.
Berchtesgaden changed both of them.
He wasn’t sure why he asked Web to tag along, honestly. He now assumes it was because Web had become something of a security for him and he hated how much he’d come to rely on the other man, but he was certain, especially then, that he wouldn’t survive if he didn’t have him by his side.
He doesn’t expect the argument over whether or not what they were doing was right. Joe didn’t care if the war was going on or over with or had been over with for decades, the man deserved what was coming to him. A memory of Landsberg running through his mind silences any rational part of his mind.
Then his gun jams and Joe looks to Web to help him, eyes burning and desperate, hands flailing to unjam the gun.
Even as his hands instinctually reaches for his weapon, Web tells him ‘no,’ and something in Joe breaks.
Joe oddly satisfied and equally empty after Skinny shoots.
For years, Joe would toil of the words Web had spoken, wondering why he was so against it but ultimately unable to finds answer to something that was well and over with.
Anyone would run.
After the cabin, Web was distant. And had Joe not been perpetually angry, he would’ve tried to fix it.
Eventually they’re on the boat back and Joe’s playing cards with some replacements and Lesniewski, when Web walks by, book in hand and brushes by Joe without a single word.
Joe stares as he leaves, anger settling in his features.
Lesniewski is staring too and then shakes his head.
“That’s the angriest man I’ve ever known.”
Joe starts laughing hysterically and when the private just stares at him Joe points towards Web, “Him?!”
Lesniewski nods and a small shiver runs over him.
“Back when we were getting food for the folks at Landsberg,” Lesniewski starts and Joe’s jaw cracks when it tightens, “Uh, I was on detail with Web and the others. He nearly shot the baker, not that anyone would’ve cared, but the way he acted and the look in his eyes still scares me more than Speirs ever did.”
Joe smashes the cards in his fists, “How did he act? Did the guy say something?”
“The baker was yelling because we were taking his stock, but fuck that deliberately ignorant asshole,” Lesniewski deals another hand like he isn’t upturning Joe’s entire image of Web, “Web was giving orders and the baker kept screaming while we were clearing out, and eventually Web got fed up and pulled out his gun and was like ‘I said, shut up, you Nazi fuck!’ and grabs the guy.”
Joe sat forward wanting to hear this story more than anything and wondering why he never heard this before.
“The German started claiming he wasn’t a Nazi, but that town was so close, there was no way he didn’t know, we all knew that. Even if he didn’t salute, he did do anything to stop it either. So, anyway, Web’s got his gun in this guy’s face and the guy won’t shut up so Web’s like “Oh, you’re not a Nazi? My mistake, you fat fucking prick. What about a human being? Are you one of those, or are you going to tell me that you never smelt the fucking stench?”
Joe closes his eyes and roughly rubs his neck as the fresh nightmare of Landsberg was still in his mind. He’ll never forget that smell as long as he lives.
“The German had to know that he was caught in his bullshit so he’s telling Web not to kill him and begging for his life. There would’ve been added hassle on top of the shittiest day of our lives if Web had shot the guy so I told him to leave him alone and that the baker didn’t know what he was talking about.”
“What happened then?” Joe asked roughly, his body thrumming with all the new information and old wounds.
Lesniewski lit a cigarette, “That when his eyes and voice went all cold like Speirs did and he just said ‘Bullshit,’ figuring I couldn’t reason with him anymore, I left. Never did find out if he shot the guy or not. Web came in on a separate transport after us.”
The private shrugged and stood up to stretch, “I gotta get out of here for a minute. I’ll see ya around Leibgott.”
Joe nodded and struggled with the information, determined to talk to Web about it before he left. Why did Web give him such a hard time when he’d nearly or possibly had done the exact same thing? Why did it matter whether or not the war had been over when the crime was so heinous? Was he trying to save Joe from the aftermath or regret that he’d maybe felt? Joe didn’t feel regret for it, only that it caused distant between them in those last months and that he felt like he was losing a part of himself rather than a best friend.
And that’s the thing, Joe hasn’t had a single friendly thought about Web for a long time, longer than he was willing to admit and the thought of losing that is what hurt the most.
Joe really had the worst luck because he never did get the chance to talk to Web about it.
Their goodbye at the docks was rushed and would’ve been insignificant if it weren’t possibly the last time that he’d ever see the other man.
The words were meaningless compared to what he wanted to say.
And before he could catch his breath, he was already back in San Francisco and Web was across the country even though he was never too far from Joe’s heart or thoughts.
Now as he sits and smokes and cries on the pavement outside his favorite bar, Joe can’t help but think of everything that led both of them here.
Of all the places for them to be in at the exact same time?
Hell, for Web to even be in San Francisco at all was a miracle.
And now Joe had fucked up by letting his emotions, once again, get the better of him. This time he would never actually see Web again.
The last words Web had quietly spoken still bugged him and as he finished his pack of cigarettes against the side of the building, he questioned them.
Congratulations, Joe. Jokes on me. You win.
Did he think Joe was joking? Did he not know him at all? Even Grant picked up on Joe’s feelings for Web and Grant refused to meddle in anyone’s business.
How could Web not know? And did he think that Joe was just messing with him? Joe may mean, but he’s not cruel and he would never do that.
The longer he thought about it, the more his head and heart ached. He wouldn’t ever regret kissing Web, but he did regret not telling Web how he felt, back then and just now.
He gets in his cab and drives to the coast, knowing sleep would never find him, where the waves would at least help him relax and come up with a plan to find Web again.
Web hadn’t slept since that night and three days’ worth of an ever-present headache was really starting to grate on him. He decided to go to the one place that always managed to relax him and help him find clarity: the aquarium.
He hadn’t been able to get Joe out of his mind and his lips still tingled from the kiss.
He walks into the aquarium and once he’s inside he lets out a breath of relief. The cool air, dark light, and blue reflections instantly calming him.
He’d spent the last days thinking about Joe nonstop and piecing together every single moment he’s ever had with him since they met.
By three in the morning on day two, he’d finally managed to figure out what the ache in his chest has been all this time.
He’s in love with Joseph Liebgott.
The realization wasn’t even a surprise by the time he got to it. If anything, he was annoyed at not having figured it out sooner. Joe was right, he was really fucking dense.
But the dense comment wasn’t in response to Web not knowing his own feelings toward Joe, but rather not knowing Joe’s feelings towards him.
It was ridiculous when Web thought about it. Really, as if Joe wanted him and had wanted him for a long time, but again, the more Web thought about it, the more it made all the sense in the world that they would end up here.
But Web had run away, probably ruined his chance for anything to ever happen. Joe wasn’t quick to share his feelings and even slower to show them, so for him to kiss Web first was remarkable. His anger and fear at Web’s near-death were more justified in context now.
He walks slowly towards the sharks, admiring the jellyfish for a longer time than he normally would, the dancing movement making him feel better, lighter.
He turns to head toward the hallway to the sharks, nose back in his journal to jot down a quick note when someone harshly bumps into his shoulder. Normally, Web would excuse it, but the aquarium wasn’t that busy and he’d spent the last three days with no sleep and a headache the size of a great white, so he spoke up.
“Watch where the hell you’re going!”
The man turned around and Web’s heart stopped.
“Me? Don’t have your nose in a book you-,” Joe stopped talking when he realized Web was standing right in front of him. He’d been in the aquarium open to close for the past three days, hoping to run into Web.
“Joe? W-what’re you doing here?”
Joe swallowed heavily, Web looked like shit. Bags under his eyes from lack of sleep, clothes wrinkled and the same ones he was wearing in the bar. He looked how Joe felt.
“I-I was looking for you. Figured you couldn’t stay away from here for too long,” He smiled smugly, “And I was right. Four days and you’re back here.”
They were standing five feet apart and it felt as though an ocean were between them.
Web thought over the words before a wide smile grace his features.
That meant that Joe would’ve had to have been here for the past three. He spent three days in the aquarium, doing who knows what to keep busy, in the hopes of seeing Web.
The ache in Web’s chest pulsed with hope and something lighter than it ever had before, filling him with happiness.
“I may be dense and correct me if I’m wrong, Joe,” Web walked closer to the other man, “but you would’ve had to have been here the last three days in order to know I wasn’t.”
Joe’s smile fell and he looked uncomfortable for a moment until Web grabbed his hand.
“I’m sorry for running. I h-hadn’t realized…didn’t think…” Web trailed off, unable to find the proper words for once.
He looked at Joe who looks cautious, scared even, but hopeful. That look alone gave Web the courage to continue.
“I think about that night in the woods a lot, Joe. We didn’t say a word to each other, but I’d never felt so connected to anyone ever in my life before. I didn’t realize what you meant to me until that night,” he takes a deep breath, “I didn’t realize that it was love until you kissed me. I was so terrified that it wasn’t real that I left before giving you a chance to reject or tease me, but I know you’d never be that cruel and I…I’m just so sorry I left you that night.”
Joe had been gripping his hand tighter and tighter the longer Web spoke and the blue-eyed man welcomed the sensation.
“I guess in one way or another, I’ve been yours since we met, I just didn’t realize it. So much for that private education, huh?” He laughs dryly and clears his throat when Joe’s cheeks flush and his eyes widen.
“I…am though. You know? Yours, uh, if you want that.”
Joe is quiet for a long time, far too long for Web’s liking because every second of silence is making him second guess himself all over again and it’s torturing him. Then Joe smiles and he doesn’t even have to say anything because Web knows that smile is genuine and happy and the fact that he knows, has known, the differences between Joe’s smiles could’ve told him he loved the other man a lot sooner than his brain did.
When Joe finally speaks, Web doesn’t expect to hear what he does, but he’s grateful for it all the same.
“That night in the woods changed everything for me. I knew I already cared about you a lot, couldn’t quite say the ‘L’ word back then, but I knew it was more than friendship and brothers-in-arms, Web. That day was the worst day of my life and I was seconds away from losing my mind when you showed up right on time. I didn’t even have to ask and you already knew what I needed. And I fell asleep and it was dreamless and peaceful because I knew I was safe in your hands. I haven’t ever felt that before or since in my life. I haven’t even looked for anything or anyone because I already know I won’t ever feel that from anyone else in the world. You make me safe, David.”
Web couldn’t help himself, where they were be damned, he pull Joe into his arms and kissed him firmly, pouring his heart and soul and happiness and pain and everything that made them up into the kiss. Both were left breathless when they finally managed to pull apart.
Web held Joe close, their foreheads gently pressed to one another.
“I love you with my entire being, Joe.”
Joe smiled against Web’s chest and pulled up to look at him with a smug smile, “I’ll bet you do, Web.”
Web groaned, “You’re going to be insufferable now, aren’t you?”
Joe pulled back reluctantly and led them hand-in-hand towards the exit.
“Now, David, you’re acting as if I haven’t always been insufferable.”
Web laughed when Joe winked at him and blinked against the hot California sun as he adjusted his grip on the hot hand holding his own.
He yanked on the hand and pulled Joe back into his arms.
“Call me David again and I’ll show you how insufferable I can be.”
He felt and saw the excited shiver race down Joe’s body.
“I don’t think I’ve shown you my house, yet, have I?”
Web smiled and bravely placed a quick kissed on Joe’s lips.
“You haven’t and if you don’t want to be arrested, I suggest you drive fast.”
They climbed into the taxi and Web smiled when Joe refused to let go on his hand the entire ride home.
Home. Web thought.
I’m finally home.