So here's a story prompted by StayStrongxox. Not sure why I didn't think of it myself but as soon as it was mentioned the story kind of popped into my head. It's slightly later than I anticipated but I've been sick and lost my mojo for a few days. Anyway it's now back and I've knocked this up in a few hours. Also – I'm working on the Haven sequel... have done another big chunk of the story but it will be a little longer before it's ready to post.

This is what I'd really like to see next week but can absolutely guarantee we'll never see. So Joey steps up as boyfriend material and shows Lauren just how much he cares for her.

A Tale of Two Birthdays.

So it was nearly a year since Lauren's 18th birthday. Last year's birthday was supposed to be the beginning of her adult life but really she'd been thrust into adulthood a few months before that when she helped her mum deal with her cancer. So the day hadn't really held any special value for her and in typical Lauren fashion she'd chosen to get drunk on her birthday as way of celebration and, as with many days since then, it had ended with her throwing up after drinking too much. The worst part was it was only the middle of the day when that happened and her parents had been watching, her mum holding back her hair. It had been pretty much the most mortifying experience of her life, at that point anyway. Unfortunately there had been worse moments for her since then.

Now it was almost a year later and it was nearly her birthday again. This year had changed her life irrevocably over that time and Lauren wished she could say it was for the better, but it wasn't. Not all of it anyway. Some parts of her life were definitely better than they had been but for the most part it had gone downhill.

Last year her family threw her a party which she hadn't turned up to it, choosing to spend the time with her friends instead, until her nan turned up and frog marched her home. Now the party her mum organised hadn't been as bad as she'd imagined it was going to be; there were no party hats involved (thank god) and the room hadn't been decked out in pink (also blessing) but it wasn't what she'd been hoping for either. This year she knew there was pretty much no chance of her family throwing a party for her (pink or otherwise) because her family was currently in tatters and could barely spend any time with each other without some drama breaking out. Her dad was married to someone that wasn't her mother and had moved out of the house. To say her own relationship with her father was about as bad as it had ever been would be an understatement. The one she had with her mother was almost as bad. She was behaving so bizarrely and she'd become a nightmare to live with; an example of this would be dating Phil Mitchell of all people... and him spending the night. Yuck! In short her whole family was a mess.

She couldn't even spend time with her friends; they'd pretty much made it perfectly clear that they didn't approve of some of the choices she'd made in recent months and she rarely hung around with them anymore. There was only one constant in her life these days; one person who was there for her when she needed him. Well, most of the time anyway.

The thing was she didn't even know if Joey knew it was her birthday. And she didn't want to tell him either. She'd rather she just pretended it wasn't happening. It was safer that way... less painful. Less drama and these days Lauren Branning craved non-drama as much as any other person.

*JL*JL*

The morning dawned and Lauren woke up without a hangover which was nice. She walked down to the kitchen and found the house empty, which given it was practically lunch time wasn't a huge surprise. Perfect. No sooner had she thought that then the back door opened and Joey poked his head around it. "Morning..." he said with a smile.

"Hey babe." She said, carrying a mug of coffee over to the kitchen table and sitting down.

"I come bearing gifts..." he said. Lauren froze at his words and looked at him in surprise. She relaxed slightly when she saw him hold up a paper bag, "Bacon rolls for two..." he added with a smile.

"Great." She said. He sat next to her and leant over to kiss her cheek softly.

He put one of the rolls on a plate in front of her and began to eat the other one. "Eat up..." he said cheerily as she sat staring at him. She smiled and then ate her breakfast. "Go, get dressed..." he ordered once she'd finished eating.

"I'm perfectly happy as I am, thanks." She said.

"We're going out." He said. "Chop chop, babe..."

"What are you planning, Joe?" she asked him.

"Nothing. I've got a day off from work and I thought I'd take my girl out for the day... away from the square. Do something nice, you know?" he smiled at her lopsidedly. She chose to believe him and stood up, kissing the top of his head before she went upstairs and did as he asked.

*JL*JL*

Lauren walked back downstairs, skinny jeans and vest top in place. She grabbed her leather jacket and pulled it on as she went into the lounge. Joey was sprawled across the couch, both arms draped along the back of the couch as he sat watched TV. He glanced up at her and smiled when he saw her. "Come here..." he said and she slipped onto the couch, sitting next to him and leaning against his chest.

"I thought you were taking me out..."

"I am. It's not time yet." He said, kissing her forehead.

"Not time?"

"I've booked a taxi to pick us up..."

"Did you win the lottery or something?"

"Nope." He said, smirking at her. His arm moved off the couch and wrapped around her shoulders, pulling her close to him.

"What are you up to?" she asked suspiciously.

"Exactly what I said earlier. Treating you to a day out."

"For no apparent reason?" she murmured.

"I've got today off work... like I said earlier."

"Mmm..." she murmured. She wasn't going to argue any further, she could tell he wasn't going to reveal anything to her. And it was kind of intriguing; wondering what it was he had planned.

Twenty minutes later a car tooted outside the house and he sprang up from the couch and pulled her with him. He led her out of the house and opened the taxi door for her. She could feel the heat of his eyes on her bum as she climbed into it and she felt her face heating. He sat close to her on the seat at the back of the cab and she leant her head on his shoulder. She could feel his fingers running through her hair and it started to lull her to sleep.

She closed her eyes only briefly but he shook her awake a little while later. "Wake up, sleepyhead." He told her gently.

"Where are we?"

"London..."

"Cute..." she said, glaring at him. She stepped out of the cab and looked around. "Regent's Park...?" she said.

"We're going to the zoo." Was his simple reply.

"Really?"

"Yes, really." He took her hand and pulled her towards the entrance for London Zoo. He produced two tickets from his jacket and passed her a map that showed all the animals at the zoo once they'd walked through the entrance. "Where do you want to go first?"

Lauren looked at the map, her eyes settling on several different animals she wanted to see. Then she saw her favourites. "The giraffes." She said softly, looking up at Joey and smiling at him.

"Funny you should choose them." He said with a smirk. "Come on, then." He said, pulling her in the right direction.

They walked up to the enclosure and Lauren squeezed Joey's hand, "Look, there's a baby one, Joe. Oh, it's so cute."

"I knew you'd like the giraffes," he told her. "That's why I got you this..." he reached into his jacket and pulled out a wrapped gift. She looked up at his face in shock, "Happy birthday, baby." He whispered.

"I didn't think you knew..." she said softly.

"Your sister told Alice... who told me," He admitted with a shrug.

"What is this?" she said, turning the gift in her hands.

"Open it and you'll see." They walked over to a nearby bench and both sat down. Lauren carefully tore the paper and pulled out the small package. It was an animal adoption pack. "I've adopted the baby giraffe for you..." he whispered in her ear. "Well, I say baby but she's actually eight years old. Her name is Ellish." He looked at her face, "Do you want to go and see her?"

"I'm seeing her from here..." she said in confusion.

"I meant a slightly closer look..." He reached into his other pocket and pulled out two more tickets.

"What are they?"

"VIP passes to meet the giraffes. It starts in a few minutes."

"Joey..." she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him deeply. "Thank you, thank you, thank you."

"Come on, they'll be getting hungry..." he said as he stood and pulled her to her feet. They walked to the enclosure and were led through to the viewing platform. Lauren's hand gripped Joey's tightly as they got the opportunity to feed the giraffes. Joey fell in love with her a little more as he saw the delight on her face. Twenty minutes later it was over and they left the enclosure. "Did you have fun?" he asked her softly.

"Oh, Joey... how did you know?" she asked as she tucked her face into his neck and wound her arms around his waist.

"How did I know what?" he asked.

"Giraffes?" she said, turning her face to look up at him.

"Lucky guess...?" he said with a smirk.

"No, really..."

"Abi... I was looking for ideas and she told me how you had this fascination with giraffes as a child." He looked down, his face reddening adorably, "I did some research and found out you could adopt the baby one and get special access to it too."

"Thank you, babe." She said softly.

"Time for the lions and tigers..." he said, kissing her forehead.

"Lions and tigers and bears, oh my..." she sang.

"Freak..." he laughed and she stuck her tongue out at him. They started the walk to the big cat section of the zoo and the first bit they got to was the tigers. "This area only opened last week," he told her.

"They're beautiful." She said softly. Unfortunately they were mainly sleeping so they didn't stay there too long before they moved onto the lion enclosure. "Joey, look at them..." Lauren gasped. "They're amazing..." They spent quite a while watching the lions. There were two younger lions, only two years old. Lauren spent much longer look at the adult male lion though. He looked so majestic, sitting proudly on his own.

Joey glanced at his watch. "We need to go soon..."

"Where are we going?"

"I've got something else planned." He told her gently. "We've just got time to visit the penguins and then the shop on the way out." They started the walk to Penguin Beach and laughed as they saw the penguins running around. They were very funny to watch.

"I need to go to the loo." Lauren said after some time of watching them.

"I'll see you in a few minutes then." He said. As soon as she'd gone he ducked into the gift shop and made his purchases. When he walked out of the shop he saw Lauren standing looking at the penguins again.

"Where did you go? I was worried..." she said.

"I went to get you something from the gift shop."

"You've already spent too much on me..." she said.

"Hey, it's not your birthday every day and anyway, I want today to be special." He took her hand in his and they walked out of the exit. There was a taxi nearby and Joey passed a piece of paper to the driver, saying their destination was a surprise. "Do you want your presents then?" he asked her as he sat next to her.

"Yes please." She said eagerly.

"They're not wrapped... sorry." He reached into the carrier bag from the gift shop and pulled out a cuddly giraffe. He passed it to her and she giggled, cuddling it tightly against her body.

"He's so cute." She leant forward and kissed him softly. "Thanks baby." His face reddened and he passed her the bag. Inside was a frame and she pulled it from the bag, gasping when she saw the image within it. It was a beautiful picture of one of the giraffe's faces. "Joe... this is too much, babe. You're spoiling me... I don't know what I did to deserve all this but thank you."

"You loved me... actually you showed me what it was to be in love. I should be thanking you."

"It wasn't difficult, I promise."

*JL*JL*

About five minutes before the taxi stopped Joey put his hands over her eyes. "No peeking." He whispered.

"Okay." She said softly, trusting him implicitly. He put the picture frame back in the bag and took the giraffe back from her, resulting in a pout forming on her delectable mouth that he just had to kiss.

The cab stopped and he paid the driver. He covered her eyes and ushered her out of the car. He stood behind her and turned her so she was facing the right direction. Holding his breath he removed his hands from her face. "You can open your eyes now..." he whispered.

She opened them, "No way..." she gasped.

"I hope you don't mind heights..." he said. "Have you been on here before?" he asked her.

She shook her head, "No but granddad and grandma Dot got engaged here."

"Did they...?" he smiled at her softly.

She blushed when she thought about what she'd just said to him. "Joey, today has been amazing..."

"Not over yet, baby girl." He said, his smile growing. He clutched her hand in his and walked them towards the queue. She looked at him in shock when he led them down the fast-track lane, jumping past everyone. She was being treated like a princess and she found she really liked it. He handed two tickets to one of the staff and they were ushered towards one of the capsules. It took Lauren several minutes to realise there was no one else in their queue. The capsule opened and they walked into it. Lauren stared out of the windows, not seeing the host walk in behind them before the doors shut. As the capsule moved she heard the pop of a cork and then she and Joey were passed a glass of champagne each. She took a sip from the glass, her eyes fixed on Joey's face. She hoped he realised how much she loved him. He stepped behind her and wound his arms around her waist, resting his chin on her shoulder. They both looked out over the horizon, spending time in silence, looking at the city below them. Joey kissed the side of her head and turned to the host and got their glasses refilled. He handed her glass back to her. The sky was beginning to darken and everything was now lit up. It was a spectacular sight. Almost as spectacular as the girl he was holding in his arms.

"It's so beautiful..." she whispered. "You can forget how great a place London can be sometimes..." she added.

"Only one thing more beautiful as far as I'm concerned." He breathed in her ear. He moved from behind her and stood by her side instead. Her eyes were drawn to him again, the view forgotten as she saw the serious expression on his face. He brushed her hair back from her face and tucked it behind her ear. She smiled shyly, remembering what that small gesture truly meant when he did it. "I have another present for you..." he said in a whisper.

"Another one...?" she murmured. "You're spoiling me, Joe."

"You deserve to be spoilt." He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small box.

Lauren bit her lip when she saw what he was holding in his hand. "Joey?" she whispered.

"It's not that..." he said, his eyes unable to meet hers. "Not yet, anyway." He said gently. "I thought I'd work up to it slowly..." he told her. "Knowing how much you're allergic to weddings and all... I didn't want to push you too far." He opened the box and held it out towards her. "It's a promise of a future though; our future... together... if you'll have me?" He whispered.

"Yes..." she said quickly. There was never any doubt in her mind. Joey was her future, she'd known that ever since the day they got together. It got a bit muddy when his father got involved but it was all clear again to her now. There wasn't anyone else for her.

He pulled the ring from the box and took her right hand in his. He slipped it gently onto her ring finger then lifted her hand to his mouth and kissed it tenderly. "I hope you're having an amazing birthday, Lauren Branning." He said to her softly.

"Best day ever..." she whispered.

Joey pulled her close to him and kissed her deeply, his tongue sweeping into her mouth. His hand brushed into her hair, holding her head in place as he worshipped her mouth. "I love you, babe." He breathed against her mouth.

"Love you more..." she whispered back to him. And she really did. Today had been so much better than last year's effort. Of course, she didn't have Joey in her life twelve months ago. Somehow she knew that every year would be just as amazing if she had Joey in it. And this ring signified he was planning on being around for a very long time which was something that pleased Lauren no end.

THE END.