So this is loosely based on spoilers for what is coming up next week - although I'm pretty sure we won't be seeing this at all in the episode.

Caring.

Joey was sat in the Vic, a litany of empty bottles sat in front of him. There was no one with him and that was just how he wanted it. The bar was busy but it was like there was an exclusion zone around him, no one was near. A door to the pub opened but he stayed twisting the bottle in his hand, turning it on the table and ignoring everyone around him. Every now and again he would lift the bottle to his mouth and take a gulp.

"Isn't that usually my position?" Her voice startled him and yet it didn't. He didn't look at her, he couldn't. She sat beside him and her hand squeezed his leg as it settled on it. "You wanna talk to me about it?"

He shook his head, "Nope."

"Why aren't you over with the others?" she asked, "I'm sure your sister would appreciate you being there..."

"Don't wanna talk about it..."

Lauren looked at Joey, studying him and seeing the pain in his features. "I'll leave you alone then..." she said softly, knowing that was what he wanted. She got to get to her feet, turning away from him slightly. He grabbed her hand and she looked back at him over her shoulder.

"Stay..." he whispered, his eyes meeting hers for the first time since she'd arrived. There was so much pain in them and she couldn't walk away from him.

"Let me go and get a couple of drinks. I'll be back." She told him softly before heading to the bar. She glanced at him as she waited to be served and she could see he'd returned to his previous position and the worry she'd been feeling since she'd first saw him sitting on his own increased further.

"He okay?"

Lauren turned and saw her father standing beside her. "I don't know..." she glanced back at Joey, "He won't talk to me..." she whispered.

"You just need to be there for him, Lauren. Today can't be easy for him either..."

"Will you tell Alice he's here? I don't want her to think he didn't come..."

"Sure. Go... I'll get these," he said, nodding towards the drinks she'd just got. "I'll speak to your mum about Alice staying at hers tonight."

"Thanks." She said softly. For the first time since Christmas day she felt there was an understanding between her and her father. She picked up the two bottles of beer and the glass and walked back to her boyfriend. She put down both the bottles of beer in front of him and then sat back down. She shuffled closer to him and rested her head on his shoulder. "I'm here for you, Joe." She told him in a whisper. He turned slightly and pressed his lips against the top of her head.

"I don't understand," he whispered into her hair after a couple of minute's silence.

"What?"

"Why today hit me so hard..." His voice faltered and Lauren looked up at him. Her hand reached up and she brushed the side of his face. She slowly moved towards him and kissed him tenderly.

"It's okay, baby."

"No, it's not. I hated him my whole life. Since he's died, it just keeps hitting me. It doesn't make sense to me."

"It doesn't have to make sense, Joe. This is all part of the grieving process." She rested her head against his chest and brushed her hand under his jacket, stroking his shirt and feeling the strength hidden beneath. His arm wrapped around her back and tightened as he pulled her towards him.

"Would it sound stupid if I said I missed him?"

"Of course not." She reassured him.

"It sounds stupid to me." He said harshly. Lauren sat in silence as he downed one of the new bottles of beer. Lauren picked up her own drink and sipped at it. It wasn't the same without any vodka in it. "You should be with your family..." he said, "I'm not company for anyone today."

"I'm not leaving you, Joe, so you can get that thought right out of your head." She told him firmly.

He leant down and kissed her forehead, "Thanks babe." He breathed against her skin.

She smiled and finished the rest of her drink, "Drink up..." she said.

"Finished drinking already?"

"I'm on the soft drinks, babe. I figured one of us should be in control tonight." She looked at his face and she saw his eyes darken.

"You know I like it when you're in control." He told her under his breath.

She gasped, looking at him in mock shock. "You do... who'd have thought?" she smiled at him slightly. She leant forward and whispered in his ear, "Drink your beer, Joe. I've got plans for you tonight..."

"I should be with Alice. She needs me..." he said as he picked up the remaining bottle of beer.

Lauren ran her hand higher up his thigh, "She'll understand. The rest of the family are with her and looking after her. Believe me, you don't want to be over there anyway. I'm sure it's more than a little tense with mum and Kirsty both there and dad playing piggy in the middle." She looked into his eyes and then glanced down, her face blushing after seeing the intensity on his face, "And I feel it's my duty as your girlfriend to be the one who looks after you. I want to be the one who looks after you." The beer disappeared with frightening speed and he slammed the bottle back onto the table. Lauren got to her feet and held out her hand towards him. Joey took her hand and then he was standing beside her. She rose onto her tiptoes and kissed him softly, not worried about anyone seeing them. "Come on..." she said against his lips, "Let's go." He nodded his head and let her pull him from the pub.

*JL*JL*

Joey was walking behind her and he couldn't help let his eyes drift down her body, settling on her bum and seeing it sway as she strode confidently across the square. He liked Lauren when she was like this. Well, if he was being honest with himself, he liked pretty much anytime really. He just liked her. Fuck it, there was no two ways about it, he was besotted with her.

It wasn't just about the sex, although that was pretty fucking great, it was the time they spent together, the other smaller moments that made it so good. Like last week when she'd stayed over at his. He'd got her up the following morning and they'd shared a moment where they were just like any other normal couple. Everything they faced each day was forgotten. She'd just been his girlfriend who'd stayed over. And it had felt remarkably normal and just for a change Joey Branning wanted normal.

They'd reached his house by this point and Lauren used her key to open the door. This was a fairly new thing for both of them; such a small thing for some but a pretty big milestone for both of them. She dragged him into the house and through to the lounge. Kat was out for the evening so they were alone. "So what do you have planned, babe?" he asked as she encouraged him to sit down.

She climbed onto his lap and put her arms around his neck, "You'll find out..." she said softly, before leaning forward and kissing him. He groaned into her mouth as she deepened the kiss.

"Babe..."

She pulled away from him with a look of innocence on her face. "Joe?"

"Thank you..."

"What for?"

"Tonight... I wanted to say it now in case I forget to do so later." He said with a gentle smile. "It's what I need and I didn't even know it until now."

"I'll always be here for you, Joe. You've been there for me so much recently and it's only fair I return the favour. Tonight is the least I can do for you."

"So are you going to give me any hints?"

"Nope..." she said with a sly smile. She kissed him again and then got back to her feet, "Wait here..." she whispered to him and then dashed from the room.

Joey sat there for about ten minutes. Just when he was beginning to think she wasn't coming back he heard her footsteps coming back down the stairs. "Lauren?" he said when she flicked off the lights in first the hallway and then the lounge.

"Do you trust me, Joe?" she asked from the doorway.

"Of course I do."

"Close your eyes..." she whispers and he does it without any hesitation. He's surprised when he feels something being put over his eyes and tied around the back of his head. "I had this planned for the other week but when we got home from R&R's that night we didn't have the house to ourselves."

"That night?"

"Valentine's." She said and Joey smiled. He heard her moving round the room and he wondered what she was up to when he heard at least one piece of furniture being moved.

"What are you doing?" he asked her in a whisper.

"Just making sure everything's prepared."

"Prepared?"

"I want this to be special, baby." She said and her voice was much closer now.

"It's always special... you know that."

"I do. I want this to be extra special..." she sat on his lap and took one of his hands in both of hers. "You do know how much I love you, right?"

"I think so..." he said softly.

"You don't sound sure," she whispered.

"I am sure." He lowered his head, which was silly because she couldn't see his eyes. She couldn't see the shame in their depths. "I worry..."

"What about?" she asked him softly.

He's quiet for a few minutes and Lauren was about to ask him again but he spoke, "That one day you'll change your mind; that you'll decide what dad said about our relationship was right."

"He wasn't right, Joey. You know that and I know that." He doesn't answer her, "Babe, what we have can't be wrong... because something wrong wouldn't feel this good; it wouldn't make me so happy." She kissed his lips softly, "Are you happy, Joe?"

"More than I knew it was possible to be. More than I thought I deserved."

"Then, you see, it can't possibly be wrong, can it?"

"Sorry, I'm spoiling your plans, ain't I?"

"Don't be silly, baby. I'm still here..."

"Can we take this thing off my eyes? I want to see you." He pleaded with her.

"In a minute..." Joey could feel her starting to undo this shirt and the temperature of the room seems to increase as she does so. There's something about not being able to see what she's doing that heightens the experience. He feels her shift slightly and then her mouth is on his skin and she's kissing him over and over across his chest.

"Lauren... please." He moaned slightly.

"All good things come to those who wait, Joey."

"I'm not sure I've got the strength for that, babe..."

She chuckled and pushed his shirt off his body, "What with these big strong muscles?" she breathed into his ear, kissing it. Then she was gone and he could hear her giggling again, this time from a distance. "Strip!" she said, her voice more forceful, all laughter gone from it. It was quite a turn on but everything she did turned him on. He got to his feet, quickly removing the rest of his clothes.

"You know Alice will have a fit if she finds out what we're about to do..." he said as he sat back on the couch.

"Well we christened the couch at my house and the one at Grandma Dot's, it would be rude not to do so here too..." she said, her voice closer to him again. "Part of you at least seems keen to do this," she teased him. She was moving as she spoke to him and again he wished he could see her. "Now, Joseph Branning, I'm going to remove this tie from your eyes now but you've got to promise that you'll keep your eyes shut until I tell you its okay to open them. Promise?"

"I promise." He said in a whisper. Her hands removed the material from in front of his eyes and he did as he'd said he would and kept them shut. Much as it killed him to do so. Again silence fell in the room and the anticipation built within Joey and certain parts of his body.

"You can open them now..." she whispered.

Joey slowly opened his eyes, surprised to find the room just lit by candles. Lauren was standing in front of him and the sight of her took his breath away; just like it always did but this was so much more. Firstly she was wearing his dressing gown and it was always a turn on for him, seeing her in his clothes. It was more than that though, the gown was open and beneath it was some utterly divine underwear. He moaned softly and looked up at her face, hoping she would see everything he was feeling on his face because he wasn't sure he could put it into words. "Lauren Branning..." he breathed, his voice deeper and huskier than it normally would be.

She walked the three steps forward until she reached him and then climbed back onto his lap. "You like?" she asked unnecessarily. His body was practically screaming just how much he liked what he was seeing. She tilted her head to one side and smirked at him. "I don't think I've ever seen you speechless before."

He cleared his throat, "When I saw your drawings of me..." he whispered.

"Mmm... and look how well that turned out." She said, smiling at him. "So, do you like your present...?" she asked.

"You know I do..." he said. He moved his hand and pushed her hair behind her ear. "But I have to admit, it would look even better off than it does on." His fingers traced down her neck and he slowly pushed his gown off her shoulder, revealing her mostly skin to him. He pushed himself upright and kissed her shoulder gently. He repeated the action to the other side of her body and the gown fell to the floor.

"Uh uh uh..." she said, "I told you earlier, I'm in control tonight." She whispered to him.

"But it's my gift..." he protested mildly because he wasn't really certain if he minded that much.

"I said I was going to look after you, baby and I meant it." She kissed him, her tongue brushing across his lips and sweeping around his mouth. Her hand circled his length and stroked him as she kissed his face, moving across to his ear. "I love you so much, Joey." She whispered.

"I love you too..." he moaned, his eyes closing as her hand tightened around him. "Babe, I'm getting close and I'd really like it to not be your hand on me when I come..."

Lauren pulled her face away from his and looked at his face, seeing the desire in his eyes. "Take it off..." she whispered.

"What?"

"My underwear... I know you want to, so take it off."

"The problem isn't so much that I want to take it off, it's that I want to rip it off you." He told her, the desire audible in his voice.

"Go ahead..." she said with a smile. "You can buy me replacements," she added in a whisper.

Joey froze for a few seconds but then lifted his hands to cup her breasts. They were the perfect size; just filling his hands. It's like she was made for him and in a way he thought she was. The underwear was red and it stood out so starkly against her pale skin. On most of the other girls he knew it would look tacky but on her, on his Lauren, it was stunning. He pulled the straps off her shoulders and he watched as more of her skin was revealed. One slight flick of his hand and the back of her bra was undone, revealing all to him. "Mine..." he whispered, his eyes flickering up to her face and seeing her bite her lip. He stretched up and kissed her passionately. "Mine," he repeated against her lips. His hands moved automatically to cup her again and his thumbs brushed over each peak, causing her to moan. His hands grazed down her sides and with two not-so-gentle tugs, the knickers were torn from her body, dropped onto the floor and forgotten in an instant. "Mine..." he moaned as he kissed down her jaw and buried his face in her neck. What her hand was doing to him should be considered illegal and it was some relief to him when she let him go.

She sank onto him and they both moaned at the sensations they felt as the connection between them was re-established. "All mine..." she told him as she started to move on him. She set a leisurely pace, both of them maintaining eye contact as they strived for the moment of euphoria.

"You're amazing, Lauren." He told her, his voice faltering as he felt his peak edging nearer. "You're the only girl for me, babe."

"And you're the only guy for me." She whispered. "I don't need anyone else. I like it just being the two of us."

"Nothing will ever change between us, will it?" he asked, his previous insecurities returning.

Lauren stopped moving on him and looked deep into his eyes. She wanted to make sure he believed every word she was about to say to him. "Not if I have anything to do with it," she said softly. "We need to stop letting people influence our relationship in a bad way. We can't let our friends and families make things more difficult for us. My parents are okay with us being together. Abi and Alice don't mind either. That's all that's important, isn't it?"

"Alice might change her mind if she saw us now..." he said with a smirk.

"We'll just need to make sure she never finds out then, won't we?"

"I'm game if you are..." Joey moved his hands to her hips, gripping them slightly, "So shall we do this then?" he asked, his thumbs brushing across her skin, heating it and making her shiver.

Lauren moved again, her pace faster this time as she knew both of them needed to reach their peaks. "Do you know how good this feels?" she gasps. He frowned slightly, "Having you in me, filling me so completely." She leant forward and brushed her lips against his, "How each time we do this it just gets better. I like being with you like this; I love spending time with you. I could happily spend every minute of the rest of my life with you."

"I feel the same way, Lauren." They kissed deeply, Lauren moving even fast, them both teetering on the precipice. "I love you." He moaned into her mouth, his eyes rolling back in his head as he felt the moment near. Lauren cried out his name, her body tightening around him as she came, pushing him over the edge.

They slumped against each other, both struggling for breath. "Take me to bed, Joe." She whispered to him once they had calmed enough to be able to utter any words.

"In a minute..." he said, "Let me catch my breath." After a few minutes he lifted her in his arms. She was completely relaxed against him and he knew it wouldn't be long until she was asleep. He bent down and picked up their clothes, needing to hide the evidence of what had happened from the rest of the household. She whimpered softly in protest at being jostled around and he kissed her forehead.

He walked them both to his room and dropped the clothes on the floor as soon as he'd shut the door. Without even turning on the lights he moved them both to his bed and soon they were both lying in each others arms. "Night babe." She breathed against his skin.

"Thank you for taking care of me..." he told her gently, as he held her tightly in his arms.

"I always will, baby." She told him softly. "I hope you know that now."

"I do." He said, "I really do." He could hear her breathing softly a couple of minutes later and Joey thought about the day. It had been a strange day on the whole. He didn't think today would knock for six quite as much as it had and he'd been sure he was going to struggle to remain sane through the day once the thoughts of his father had struck. The only thing able to do that was the girl he was holding in his arms now. He knew it. He'd known for a long time, since meeting her in fact, that Lauren was important to him and it was his intention to make sure he never gave her a reason to doubt him again.

THE END

A/N: So there you go. Not sure about the ending... wanted something better but struggled with it a bit. Anyway hope you liked it. Let me know your thoughts.