This idea came to me earlier this week and after talking to Eastendersfan444 about it and with much encouragement from her (thanks Mandy!)... this is what I wrote. I hope you like it as much as she and just so you know... YOU'RE GOING TO NEED TISSUES!
The doorbell rang at number 5 Albert Square. "I'll get it," Lauren said as she walked out of the lounge. She opened the door and her heart dropped. "No..." she whispered, shaking her head back and forth as a lump started forming in her throat.
"Lauren Branning?" One of the men said.
"Babe, who is it?" Max asked, walking down the stairs.
Lauren turned to face him, complete and utter devastation on her face, "Daddy..." she said softly.
He strode over to her and his hand grasped hers as he saw who was standing on the doorstep. "Why don't you come in?" he said. The two officers walked through the door and Max waved them into the lounge. Once they were there he looked at his daughter, "Babe..."
She looked up at him, her eyes filled with tears, "I can't hear them say it, dad." She whispered, "I can't hear them tell me he's gone."
"You don't know what they're going to say yet..."
"Dad, we both know there is only one reason why they're here..." she murmured, a tear trickling down her cheek.
"Well, let's hear them out, okay. I'm here for you, babe, I promise you..." He put his arm around her shoulders and ushered her into the lounge. The two Branning's sat side by side on the sofa.
"Ms Branning..." One of the officers said, "We're sorry to have to inform you that Second Lieutenant Joseph Branning and some of his men were involved in an incident last night."
"Is he dead?" Lauren whispered.
"We don't know many details at this stage, just that he is still alive. But he has been badly injured. It was an IED and the vehicle they were travelling in was right on top of it when it exploded."
Lauren had exhaled with his first few words but her heart sank further when she heard about what had happened. "How bad are his injuries? Will he be okay?" she whispered.
"I'm sorry, I don't actually know. The information that's come through is sketchy at this stage. Once they've checked him over he'll be transported to a military base in Germany, hopefully later this evening, as soon as he's stable enough to travel."
"Can I go and see him?" Lauren asked.
"Yes, we can fly you and another person over to him."
"Dad...?" Lauren whispered, glancing at her father.
"Of course, babe..." He reached for her hand and squeezed it tightly. "I'll get your nan to keep an eye on Abi while we're gone."
"I should go and pack..." Lauren said softly, getting to her feet and walking out of the room, shock just now beginning to set in.
Max looked at the officers, seeing the understanding on their faces. They had seen this sort of reaction before. "Is there anything else we should know?" he asked.
Lauren picked up some tops and went to put them in the bag she was packing. She froze as her eyes caught a photo frame on her bedside table. It was one of the few things she'd bought back to this house when she'd come here after Joey was deployed. She could've stayed at their house, she could've stayed on the base with the other army families but she'd discussed it with Joey before he'd left and she'd told him she wanted to go home and be with her family. This was the second time he'd been away in Afghanistan but this time was for much longer than the last time and she knew she'd need the support of her friends and family. Being on her own, worrying about him and how he was would've been too much for her to handle and she would've been tempted to fall back on her vice. Christ, did she want a drink now...
She sat on her bed and picked up the photo. It was a picture of the two of them, a family gathering at their house just after they'd moved to the base. She was standing in Joey's arms and they were both smiling at the camera. She remembered that just after the photo was taken Joey had kissed her. She had been really happy. Since her recovery and rehab, Joey had always made her happy.
A tear ran down her face as she wondered what she was going to find when she got to the hospital at the base. She knew how much this was going to be difficult for Joey. Whatever his injuries were he was going to struggle. He was such a physical person... he barely stopped, he was always on the go and this was going to be devastating. For all of them.
She had only spoken to him a couple of days ago. It had been a short call, they usually were and very rarely predictable. Joey tried to ensure he got to speak to her once a week but it wasn't always possible. Before their last call it had been nine days since they had spoken. Every day of his absence had been difficult for Lauren. She had tried to focus on her art, to work on her degree and occupy her mind but she had simply been unable to most of the time. Now there was only one thing she was focussed on; getting the love of her life through the obstacle course he now faced.
Lauren sat beside her dad on the plane heading for Germany and Joey. The last few hours had passed in a blur... from a tearful goodbye with her sister and nan, to arriving at the airport and being greeted by another uniformed person who led them both to the plane they now sat on. They had been informed that Joey was already on his way to the hospital and would arrive there at about the same time as their plane took off. Lauren was tense as she sat in the seat. She was rarely relaxed when she was on a plane but usually Joey was there to take her mind of it. Today he wasn't and as she was thinking about him and the situation they were now in she was as about as tense as she could be.
Her dad reached over and squeezed her hand, "It'll be okay, babe."
"You don't know that, dad. They've told us nothing... we don't know what we're going to find when we get there." She whispered.
"I don't know how to do this, dad." She said, "I knew it was a danger we faced with him being in the Army... but I just thought it would never happen to us, you know." She looked at him and she knew he would be able to see the fear on her face. "I don't know how I can help him deal with this... whatever this is... because I don't know how to deal with it myself."
"You'll work it out, babe... because you love him... And you don't have to do this on your own. I'm going to be there for you and Joey every step of the way. And so will the rest of the family. We're all here for you."
"Thanks dad." She whispered.
Lauren could still clearly remember the day when Joey had finished his officer training. He had been so proud to be selected and put forward for it, knowing how few people that happened to but he had worked really hard once he'd joined the army and someone had seen the promise he had shown. Officer training had been his reward and again he had taken as much out of the training as he could. Lauren and her family had been there for the ceremony at the end of the course, seeing him being commissioned as an officer and she had never felt so proud of someone in her life. It had also helped that he looked remarkably sexy in his dress uniform. He was her sexy soldier; her real life knight in shining armour.
Her memory of that day was clear in her head but what was even clearer was the night that followed. There had been so much passion between them that night when they'd got back to their hotel room near Sandhurst. It had also been the night Joey had asked her to move in with him. Now that he was assigned to a unit he was entitled to accommodation on the base and he wanted her to be there with him. Lauren didn't even have to think about it. Being with Joey was where she wanted to be. He was where her heart resided and he always would be.
Lauren walked from the car towards the hospital, a large knot forming in the pit of her stomach the closer she got to the entrance. Trepidation had been building within her since the moment she opened the door and saw the two officers on the doorstep but now it had escalated to a whole new level. She just wished she knew everything was going to be okay. They were greeted by another officer who'd obviously been waiting for them and he led them to a small room, gesturing for them to sit down.
"I can now give you more details of what happened..." He said once they were all sitting. "The vehicle Joseph was in..."
"Joey..." Lauren interrupted. The officer frowned, "His name is Joey... Not Joseph. Only his dad called him that and he hated it."
"Sorry... The vehicle Joey was in was driving from the base to a nearby town in the Helmand Province. They were moving medical supplies to a nearby children's hospital that had run out of some drugs earlier in the week. Joey was in the front of the vehicle, the passenger seat. The front right wheel caught the edge of the IED and the vehicle was flipped in the explosion."
"How were the other men?" Lauren asked.
"The other members of Joey's section were all killed in the explosion," the officer told her gravely. "Joey is the only person to survive."
Lauren paled significantly at this fact. She had known all the men in Joey's section. They were a close-knit team who had liked and respected Joey as their team leader. She had been to two of their weddings... and a christening just a couple of months ago. She was friends with all their wives or girlfriends and she suddenly felt incredibly lucky for being in the situation she was in. She still had Joey. She wasn't going through what they now were. "How is he?" she asked in a whisper.
"He's severely injured. They will be taking him down for surgery in a while, they're just getting him settled and doing some tests."
"Can you tell me what his injuries are?" she asked, needing to know but not wanting to at the same time.
"I don't know many details. All I have is the initial assessment that was made before he flew back. His doctor will be able to give you a better update shortly." He looked at the file in his hand, obviously reading through the notes he had. He looked up again at Lauren, "His body was hit by a lot of shrapnel from the IED and also from the vehicle he was in. He was thrown from the vehicle as it exploded and received impact injuries to his head and chest. They are going to be operating on him to remove some of the shrapnel and repair the damage."
"What sort of damage are we talking about?" Max asked.
"Again, I must tell you that this is just an initial assessment and the doctor who's treating him now will be able to tell you much more than I can but as a precaution when he was moved, he was kept completely immobilised, until he was able to be assessed properly here. There is a concern there may be spinal damage... but like I said it's just a precaution. He does, however, have bad wounds to his back and legs." Lauren gasped at what he had told them, tears building in her eyes. Her dad squeezed her hand tightly, his thumb brushing the back of her hand.
"Can I see him? Before he goes down for surgery? Do you know if he's awake?" Lauren asked.
"Let me go and see if that's possible? I'll also see if the doctor can speak to you..." he told her, getting to his feet and heading towards the door.
Once he was gone Lauren collapsed against her dad, her fight to keep the tears at bay failing. "Oh, dad..." she whispered.
Max hugged his daughter tightly, kissing the top of her head as he felt her start to shake in his arms. "Try and look at the positive, babe. He's made it this far... He's still alive." To himself at least he could admit that his words were little comfort at the moment but he knew his daughter had to be strong for what she was about to face.
"I know..." she whispered. Her dad was right. She knew that in her heart but it was so painful to think of the man she loved being in such pain and going through so much. She pulled away from her dad as the door opened again and a new soldier walked through the door.
"I'm the person who's in charge of Joey's care now he's here. I've just finished my assessment of him."
"How is he? The other officer said there might be spinal damage..."
"It is looking more than likely that is possible, I'm afraid. Joey currently has no sensation or feeling from the waist down and I can't say whether that will be permanent or not. We've done an X-ray and there are several pieces of metal embedded in his back, some close to his spinal cord and the surrounding tissue. We will be operating on that shortly to try and remove them and look at the damage it's done. Until he's out of surgery and the inflammation has gone down, it's unlikely we will know if he's permanently paralysed or not. He also has more metal in both his legs, his right leg being more severely damaged than his left. We will also be operating on his legs and evaluating what damage there is straight after we've worked on his back."
"Is he awake?" Lauren whispered, a lot of what the doctor had just said not having the impact it should've done quite yet. She was in shock and she needed time to absorb it all.
"He is. Would you like to see him before he goes down for surgery?" he asked.
"I can take you through to him in a few minutes." The doctor told her. He stared at the young girl and could see she was devastated by his news. Unfortunately this wasn't the first time he'd had to break such heartbreaking news to a soldier's loved ones and it wouldn't be the last time either.
The doctor held the door open for her and she walked through. Her eyes barely noticed anything else in the room apart from Joey as he lay on a trolley in the centre of the room. She moved to his side quickly, his eyes locating hers as soon as he realised she was there. Lauren's hand rose and cupped the side of his face, her thumb stroking his cheek as she stared into his eyes. "Joey..." she whispered.
"I'm sorry..." he whispered.
"Why are you apologising?" she asked.
"For putting you through this..." He said, a hint of self-loathing in his voice. "For scaring you... For making you come all this way just for this..."
She placed her finger on his lips to silence him and he stared up at her, his eyes wide and glassy. She could see the fear in the depths and she knew at the moment he was like the little boy she'd never known. He was scared and confused and she couldn't say she blamed him. There was a large part of her that was scared too. "It's okay, Joe..." she reassured him, "There is nowhere else I would rather be than here with you..." She whispered, "I love you, Joey... and I'm here for you... Always..."
He stared at her, tears threatening, "I can't feel my legs..." he eventually whispered.
"I know..." she murmured, her thumb brushing his cheek as a lone tear fell down his face.
"I can't feel anything below my waist..." he told her.
"It's okay, Joe..." she said.
"No, it's not, babe..."
Lauren bent down and placed her lips on his, kissing him tenderly, feeling him respond against her. "I don't care, Joe." She breathed, staring at his face and hoping she could see the honesty in her eyes. "Are you in pain?" she asked him.
"No... even if I could feel anything, they've got me on masses of drugs."
Lauren glanced behind her and saw the nurses and doctors gathering in the doorway. She glanced at her dad, seeing the concern on his face. "It looks like you've got to go now... but I'll be waiting for you when you come back out, okay?" she whispered. Joey lifted his hand and clasped the one she still had on his face. He looked terrified. "Joe, I'm going nowhere... I promise you," she reminded him. "Me and dad are here until you're ready to go home."
"I love you..." he whispered.
"Love you more..." she said with a smile. She kissed him again, not for as long as she'd like but it felt good to be able to do so. "Do you want me to call your mum?" she asked as she pulled away.
"No. Don't want to panic her..."
"I need to tell her something, Joe..." she said.
"Don't tell her how bad it is, babe... Please..." he murmured.
"Okay..." she agreed. She pecked him on the lips once more before the nurses stepped forward and wheeled the trolley out of the room. She turned as he was rolled out of the room, maintaining eye contact with him the whole time. She looked at her dad once he was gone and Max strode forward, pulling her into his arms as she collapsed against him. They stood in almost silence for some time, only the sound of Lauren crying could be heard in the room.
Lauren and Max had been waiting a long time. Max had called Abi and Cora to let them know what was going on. He'd also called Joey's mum and broke the news to her. Each time Lauren composed herself enough to make the call, by the time she'd unlocked her phone, a fresh bout of tears had appeared. His mum had been relatively calm about it but Lauren had persuaded her dad to only give her the barest of information with the justification that they wouldn't know much themselves until the operation was over.
Time was passing incredibly slowly and Lauren was sure it had little to do with how she was watching the seconds tick back, waiting for some news. They heard the sound of approaching feet and Lauren held her breath, hoping it would be the doctor and yes dreading it at the same time. She was almost relieved when they walked right past and she exhaled again quickly.
"He'll come and speak to us soon, babe." Her dad said.
"It's been so long." She whispered.
"Its delicate surgery they've got to do, Lauren. Would you want them to rush it when they're operating on his spine?" he asked her, looking at her face and seeing the resignation on her features. "And they've got to sort out his legs as well."
"I know..." Her hands clenched on her lap as she stared at them intently, "Where are we going to live, dad? We'll lose the place at the base now." She already knew Joey's military career was practically over. And that had consequences.
"Move back to Walford." Max said simply.
"We can't live with you. Joey won't be able to manage the stairs, will he?" She said, although the thought of them being surrounded by their family sounded appealing.
"I can speak to Jack and see if you can use his flat..." Max said. "It's on the ground floor and was set up for wheelchair access so Penny could visit him there. I'm sure he'd be happy for you both to live there and then you're close enough to the rest of us if you need the support."
"I'll speak to Joe about it, dad." She whispered.
"I'll speak to Jack and sound him out about it. I don't know what he's planning to do with it since he's left. And the last tenants moved out a month before you came back home."
The door opened and it was a nurse, "I've just come to let you know that they've finished operating on his spine and are about to start on his legs." She said, "You should go and get something to eat and drink, it's going to be a few more hours at least." She told them kindly.
"Thanks for letting us know," Max said. The nurse left the room again and Max stared at his daughter. "How long is it going to take me to convince you to go and eat?"
"Not long, dad." She said. "Although I'm not sure how much I'll eat."
They left the room and Max led her to the cafeteria. Once they were sitting and eating, he couldn't help but notice when she was just picking at her food, "You'll be no good to Joey if you make yourself sick, babe."
"I know. I'll eat something later, once he's out of surgery." She told him.
"Did you want to talk to your mum?" he suggested, wondering if Tanya would be able to offer her some support he seemed unable to.
Lauren shook her head. "It's almost three in the morning, dad. I'll call her tomorrow."
"I'm sure she wouldn't mind..."
Lauren looked at her father, "The first thing she'll assume is that I'm drunk and she'll bite my head off for waking her up." Lauren said pragmatically. "And anyway, Oscar has school tomorrow."
By six in the morning Max and Lauren were both dozing in the waiting room. Lauren was leaning against her father and his arm was around her shoulders. The door to the room opened and Lauren woke, pulling away from her father and waking him in the process. It was Joey's doctor. "He's in recovery... they're waiting for him to come around from the anaesthetic before taking him to his room."
"Did it go okay?" Lauren whispered.
The doctor wiped his hand down his face and sat on the chairs opposite him. "It was more complicated than I'd expected it to be. The metal in his back was deeper and much closer to his spine than the X-rays indicated. We had to be very careful as we removed each piece or we could've caused even more damage."
"How bad was it?" she asked.
"Worse than I would've liked but it could've been so much worse. I couldn't actually see anything that will have definitely caused permanent damage... that's not to say there isn't a chance he might be paralysed, there just wasn't anything obvious I could see."
"What about his legs?" Max asked.
"Like I said before the surgery, his right leg was more severely injured than the left one. I've done what I can to repair the damage to the muscles, veins and skin but further surgery may be required in the future."
"Can I see him?" Lauren asked.
"He's going to be in and out of consciousness for the next few hours and we've got him on some pretty heavy duty drugs..." the doctor told her.
"I said I would be there when he came back out."
"I'll get a nurse to come and get you when they're moving him back to his room." He said, seeing the determination on her face. "I'll be back to examine him in the morning. I'd suggest you both get some rest. I can have one of our staff drive you to the family quarters on the base, if you'd like?"
"I'm going to stay here." Lauren said, glancing at her dad.
"We'll both stay here for now but thanks. Maybe tomorrow we'll make use of those facilities." Max said. As tired as he was he didn't want to leave Lauren alone at the hospital... not while everything was still so up in the air anyway.
Lauren sat on the chair beside Joey's bed and reached for his hand. She could now see there were cuts and bruises all over his face and bare chest. The bruises on his chest and face were now starting to turn a pale shade of black but she guessed that by the morning they'd be much darker. She lifted his hand so the back of it was pressed against her cheek and she turned her head and kissed it tenderly. The heat of his skin against her face soothed her somewhat and gave her some hope that they would get through this.
He hadn't been awake since she'd come back into the room but the nurse had told her he'd woken briefly after the surgery. She pulled her chair closer to his bed and ran her fingers through his hair, staring at his face. She loved him so much and had done pretty much since the first day she'd seen him all those years ago. Their relationship had been so difficult initially and she'd very nearly ruined it with her drinking. It wasn't until he'd left after Michael's death that she'd been forced to face up to how much she wanted and needed him in her life. They had kept in close contact after he left Walford and they'd seen each other fairly regularly. At first they'd just been friends and cousins, pretty much like they would've been if they'd grown up together but after a couple of months there was no denying there was still an attraction between them. Lauren doubted there would ever be a day when there wasn't if she was being honest with herself.
Joey had made the first move but Lauren hadn't exactly pushed him away when he did. He'd kissed her one night after taking her to the cinema and then out for a meal. They had gone back to his mum's house after, she was going to be staying in what used to be Alice's room. There was this sexual tension ebbing between them though that seemed to climb even higher once they were sitting in the lounge of his house. Joey had kissed her, only briefly but that was enough to ignite the touch paper and set off a firework display. They had slept together that night and Lauren could still remember every second of it. Sex had always been good for them, even in the days when she was drunker than she should've been. From then on out there had never been any question of whether they were together or not, although by unspoken agreement they had chosen to take things slower this time.
A few weeks after that first night back together he'd told her he was thinking of enrolling in the army. She had been surprised initially but he'd explained to her how he'd always been interested in doing it and now that Alice wasn't around and didn't need him and with his mum thinking of moving to Scotland to be closer to her family, he was seriously considering it again.
Lauren was hesitant when he told her, she wasn't sure where she stood in these plans and obviously Joey had been quick to pick up on that. He pretty much laid it on the line for her, telling her she was the most important person in his life. She was his future and he wanted her with him when he did this. He wanted her to support him with this and Lauren had found she couldn't refuse. For the first time since Michael's death there was life in Joey's eyes... the spark that had disappeared along with Alice's freedom was back and Lauren wanted him to be happy. She wanted him to do this as much as he did.
It had only been a couple more months and then he was off for his training. Again Lauren had been unsure of how this would affect their relationship but it hadn't had that much impact. It was true they weren't able to see each other as often as they had been and they were further apart than before he'd joined up but the times they had together were more special and just cemented their relationship; making it and them stronger with each visit. They spoke every day... several times a day really. The first thing Joey did every morning was send her a text and their day would (when possible) end with a call from one or the other. Lauren had still been living at home at this stage but she had finally finished her college course and was investigating further education. She was still attending her AA meetings and seeing her counsellor but she was feeling in a much better place and that had mostly been due to Joey and their relationship.
There had been a small issue when Joey had told her that the person in charge of his course was recommending him for officer training which would mean a year away in Sandhurst. Joey had definitely been busier once he was there and Lauren had missed him a great deal. Lauren had had a near miss with falling off the wagon as a result of the separation from Joey and it had given them both (and Max) a fright. Lauren had been down to see him for several weekends in a row after that happened and it had helped her over that little blip.
Lauren looked at Joey as he lay on the bed again and she wished there was more she could do for him. She entwined her fingers with his, kissing the back of his hand again and closed her eyes briefly. Just a couple of minutes...
Lauren woke with a start and realised she'd been asleep for a few hours. It was now daylight in the room and her dad was nowhere to be seen. She glanced at Joey again and squeezed his hand. He stirred on the bed, struggling to open his eyes. He looked at her, his eyes leaving her face for a second as he looked down his body. She saw the moment he remembered what had happened wash over his face and she squeezed his hand as tight as she could.
"I didn't dream it then?" he murmured, looking at her again. Lauren shook her head once. "Fuck..." he whispered.
"It's going to be okay, Joe..." she told him.
"Nothing about this is going to be okay, Lauren." He stated, his words hard and the tone of his voice made her stomach churn.
"We've still got each other..." she whispered.
"Have we?" he asked and Lauren froze, her eyes filling with tears instantly.
"What's that supposed to mean?" she asked him softly.
"You're not going to be here long, are you?" he said, "Not that I blame you... why would you want to be with me now?" She could hear the self-hatred in his words as he voiced what was no doubt one of his biggest fears.
"Because I love you, Joey..." she told him emphatically, "I always have and I always will love you..."
"I'm not the same man you fell in love with..." he said, his eyes meeting hers.
"And I'm not the same girl either..." she said. "Both of us have changed, Joey." He rolled his eyes, dismissing her argument without saying anything more. "Don't you think I was worried about what it would be like for the two of us to get together again after I'd finished rehab? I was so scared about whether you'd still love me. I wasn't the fun party girl anymore, I was boring. I was the girl you couldn't take out for a drink; the girl who can't even have one small drink without the not-so-small chance of her liver failing and killing her. I thought you would get bored and go and find someone else. I was terrified you would hurt me again... but I hated the thought of us not being together more."
"I don't want you to hate me, babe." He whispered, "I don't want you to look back and think that you've wasted your time by staying with me."
"I could never hate you, Joey... even after the whole sleeping with Whitney thing, I couldn't hate you. Even when you dumped me after the car crash I didn't hate you. I thought I did," she said, "but in here," she added, pointing to her chest, "and in here," pointing at her head, "I didn't. I loved you."
He said nothing more but Lauren knew the discussion was far from over. They were interrupted at that point anyway by her dad returning to the room and from the look on his face he sensed the atmosphere between the couple.
Joey's doctor came into the room in the middle of the morning. Max left them but Lauren stayed, wanting to know what was going on. The doctor began by taking readings from the copious amounts of machines around Joey, making notes in Joey's file. He then began to check the small wounds on Joey's chest. Several other medical staff came into the room and they all manoeuvred Joey onto his side so the doctor could examine the wounds on his back, checking where he had operated. Lauren couldn't really see anything at that point, having moved out of the way so the staff could get to the bed. The doctor then turned his attention to Joey's legs and Lauren had to bite her lip when she saw the extent of the damage... and that was just the bits that were visible around the bandages. She glanced at the doctor's face but it was impossible to read. Joey's, on the hand was as clear as day. She could practically see any hope he might have possessed falling from his face. She moved back closer to him and took his hand in hers, squeezing it tightly as she continued to look at his face. His eyes met hers but she could tell he was mentally pulling away from her.
"I need to do some tests now, Joey to see if there has been any change from yesterday." He said. Joey nodded sharply. "If there hasn't been any change, please keep an open mind. Your body has been through a lot of trauma and there will no doubt be some severe bruising internally. I could see yesterday that there were areas of your spinal cord that were inflamed and it might take a few days for you to get any sensation and control back."
"Yes, sir..." Joey said, his fingers grasping Lauren's.
The doctor started at Joey's feet but Joey felt nothing. There was no change all the way up to Joey's knees and as the doctor climbed higher, the further Lauren's hopes fell. He lowered the blankets from Joey's waist and poked and prodded his legs and hips. Joey was staring intently at the ceiling of the room, avoiding interaction with anyone in the room. "Well, I'm afraid there hasn't been any change, Joey." He finally admitted and Lauren stared at Joey, seeing him just blink his eyes. There was no other reaction from him and Lauren was worried. "I'll be back to see you later, Second Lieutenant..." he added, "Just ask one of the nurses if you need anything."
"Yes sir." Joey repeated.
The room was silent and Lauren was watching the love of her life lying in stony silence on the bed. "Do you want to talk about it?" she asked him softly.
"There's nothing to talk about, Lauren." he murmured, "My life is over... It's not worth shit now, is it?"
She felt awful. She couldn't believe he had just said that. He had just completely dismissed the whole of their relationship. "Well, thanks, Joe..." she whispered.
"What were you expecting me to say, Lauren?" he snarled. He stared at her intently and she could practically see the thought process going through his head. "Go..." he said suddenly. "It's over, Lauren."
"What?" she gasped.
"You heard me..." He said. "Go..." he repeated. She stood there, frozen to the spot. "GO!" he shouted and she didn't need to be told again. She grabbed her bag and ran for the door, tears already pouring down her face. She glanced back at him one last time before she left the room, not sure why but needing to look at him. He stared at her, seeing the devastation on her face and deep inside the guilt began to form. The door slammed shut, leaving him alone. Frustrated, angry, guilty, angry... oh, and guilty. "FUCK!" he said loudly.
Lauren was walking around the grounds of the hospital. She was trying to get control of her emotions again after Joey had hurt her so badly. She wanted to believe he hadn't meant what he'd said but there was an increasing part of her that was thinking he did. This was a defining moment in their relationship and she was beginning to wonder if they were strong enough to get through this. She had thought they could get through anything together but now she wasn't so sure.
She sighed and stopped walking, tipping her head back and looking up to the sky. She wasn't sure if she was hoping for divine inspiration or what but whatever it was, she didn't get it. She did realise something else though and froze as she thought of the implications, "Fuck..." she whispered.
Over the next twenty four hours or so things were tense between Joey and Lauren. Lauren had gone back to his room but to say the atmosphere was frosty between them was understating it somewhat. Max was completely flummoxed by what was happening and while he tried to support them both, he was frustrated with the way they were both behaving.
He took advantage of Lauren having left the room to call her mum in the afternoon of the second day of them being there and he approached his nephew. "Are you going to tell me what is going on between the two of you?" he asked, sitting beside the bed.
"There's nothing to tell..." Joey said, his head turned away from his uncle.
"That's a load of crap, Joey and we both know it." Max said.
"I've let her go..." he whispered.
"Are you an idiot?" Max asked him.
Joey turned his head towards him and Max flinched as he saw the pain in Joey's eyes. "Probably..." he admitted, "But it seemed like the right thing to do."
"The right thing?" Max asked, getting more confused with each word Joey said.
"She deserves to be with someone else... someone who can look after her and keep her safe and make her happy." He said, his eyes focusing on the ceiling of the room, "She doesn't need me making her life difficult. She doesn't need to be looking after me for the rest of her life. So I've let her go..." he whispered.
"You've let her go?" Max gasped. That had been the last thing he was expecting Joey to admit. "So how come she's still here?"
"Because she's stubborn..." Joey muttered.
"Like someone else I know." Max said truthfully. There was silence between them, "Do you know how much Lauren loves you?" he asked. There was no response. "You are all she thinks about. Since she's been home again she has spent all her time thinking about you. She gets this far away expression on her face and we all know she is a few thousand miles away, thinking of you. You've made her the happiest she's been her whole life, Joey and that hasn't changed because of what you're going through now. You both knew this was a risk when you joined the army. You made that decision and Lauren did too. She moved in with you. She moved her whole life to live with you because you are the person she loves. You're the person she needs."
"But I'm not the same person anymore. I'm going to be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. My life might as well be over. She deserves to be happy and that won't be with me."
Max stared at his nephew, seeing the despair clearly on his face. "When are you going to realise that you are the one thing that's ever made her happy, Joey? Me and her mum certainly haven't and no one else ever has. It's always been you," Max said to him softly, "I'll leave you to think about that for a while. In the mean time I'm going to go and speak to your girlfriend and see if I can talk some sense into her."
"Talk to me, babe..." Max said as he sat next to Lauren.
"There's nothing to tell... Joey's ended our relationship..." She glanced at him and he saw her bite her lip, her eyes were red and it didn't take a genius to see she was upset.
"What aren't you telling me?"
She said nothing for several minutes, "I need you to cover for me for an hour or so..." she said.
"Cover for you?" Max asked, "Where are you going?"
"I've got an appointment..."
"An appointment?" He asked, "With who? We've only been here for just over a day. We're in a foreign country... Who exactly could you be meeting?"
Lauren looked at her dad as she got to her feet, "I can't tell you..." she whispered. Max didn't miss the tears in her eyes and a feeling of dread washed over him.
He grabbed her hand and pulled her towards him as he stood, "Talk to me, babe..."
"I'm pregnant..." she whispered, unable to meet his eyes.
"So you're going to see a doctor?" Max said in relief, "Joey will be so pleased when he finds out."
"You can't tell him, dad." She murmured quickly.
"No, you're right... you should be the one to tell him." Max said, getting somewhat flustered as he imagined his daughter holding his grandchild in her arms.
"There is nothing to tell, dad..." Lauren said, lifting her eyes and looking at his face. Tears were still in her eyes but it was the emptiness he could see in them that really scared him. "I'm going to get a termination, dad. In a couple of hours time there won't be a baby to even tell him about."
"You're getting rid of it...?"
"Now isn't the right time for us, dad..." she said, a tear rolling down her face.
"You don't want this, babe... I can see it on your face. And as for it being the right time... have you considered that this might be the only time... for Joey, at least." Lauren took a step back and stared at her father in horror. This was something that hadn't really sunk in until her dad said it. "I understand things aren't easy between you and Joey right now and I know he's pushing you away at the moment but he does love you, babe. And it's his baby too, Lauren. He at least deserves to be involved in this decision..." he told her pointedly.
"How am I supposed to talk to him about it? He's not talking to me..." Lauren protested. She turned away from him and gathered up her bag.
Max watched her, his heart tearing apart at the decision his daughter was about to make, "Lauren, if you do this, it will kill him... and it will kill you too. Why didn't you tell me before?"
"I only found out a few hours ago..." she whispered.
"And you've made this decision already?" Max asked her, "Babe, please just think about it... talk to Joey about it. It might be what he needs to hear as well..."
"How do you mean?" she asked.
"This might be just what he needs to motivate him."
Lauren stared at her dad, feeling like he was emotionally blackmailing her into going through with this pregnancy. She was feeling trapped and to a certain extent she had done ever since she taken the test. She was already going to have to care for Joey and now her dad was expecting her to bring up a newborn baby as well. "I've got to go..." she whispered, fleeing the building before he could stop her.
"I thought Lauren would be here..." Joey said to Max.
Max could hear the vulnerability in his voice and he knew Joey didn't want to end his relationship with Lauren anymore than Lauren wanted him to. "I'm sure she's just giving you space, Joey..." he said carefully. The door opened and Max looked up, hoping to see his daughter. It wasn't her though. It was the doctor. "Do you want me to stay?" he asked his nephew.
"No, I'll be fine." Joey said but Max didn't believe him for a second.
"I'm just out here if you need me, okay?" he told him, getting a quick nod before he walked out of the room.
The door opened and Max looked up. Lauren was standing there and she looked devastated. "I couldn't do it, dad." She whispered. "I couldn't go through with it..." Tears were running down her face and she looked so vulnerable as she stood there.
Max got to his feet and pulled her into his arms. He kissed the top of her head, his hand brushing up and down her back. "It's going to be okay, babe..."
"Joey will hate me if he ever finds out what I was going to do..."
"No he wouldn't. He'd probably be angry but he wouldn't hate you... you're the mother of his child, Lauren... He's going to love you so much... and he's going to love your child just as much."
"You really think so?"
"Why don't you go in there and break the news to him? The doctor's in with him now but he should he done soon."
"I think I will..." she said softly. "Thanks dad..." she breathed against his cheek as she kissed him. The sounds of approaching footsteps pulled them apart and both were surprised to see several people urgently enter Joey's room. They reappeared a few minutes later with Joey being pushed out in his bed. Lauren made her way quickly to his side. "Joe?" she whispered, kissing him softly.
"I'm sorry..." he breathed, tears falling from his eyes. "I didn't mean it... None of it..."
"I know..." she said. Her hand brushed the side of his face. "What's happening?" she said, still looking at Joey but directing the question at his doctor.
"Joey's leg is infected..." the doctor told her quietly.
Lauren looked at Joey's face, she could see in his eyes the signs of fever and she felt guilty for not being with him when he really needed her. Her hand gripped his tightly and she kissed him again. "What does that mean for Joey?"
"We're going to have to amputate..." he said softly.
"You can't just give him drugs to fight the infection?" she asked. Joey squeezed her hand tightly and she knew the answer before the doctor even said it. She could see the despair in his eyes; the body numbing fear he was feeling oozing from every pore.
"The infection is too far established... because of Joey's paralysis he's unable to feel the pain that would've indicated what was happening. Putting it bluntly, the leg is dead and if we don't act fast the poisons making their way through his system now will prove fatal."
Lauren looked back towards the doctor and neither of the men looking at her were surprised to see tears running down her face. "Can I just have a few minutes with Joey?" she asked, "Alone..." she added.
"Of course but we really can't hang around too long." The doctor said. He stepped away and Max followed him, the rest of the medical staff following suit.
"I should've been here..." she whispered to Joey. "I'm so sorry for not being here..."
"It's okay..." he told her, "I shouldn't have pushed you away like I did." He bit his lip and looked into her eyes, "I'm scared..." he whispered.
"I know, Joey... so am I but we can do this, I know we can."
"Maybe it would be easier if I was gone..." he breathed.
Lauren's breath faltered as his words and tears built in her eyes again, "Don't say that Joey... please? I don't think I could handle it if you weren't here with me. I need you, Joe..." She kissed him passionately, her tongue slipping between his lips and deepening the kiss.
"It's time, Lauren..." the doctor said softly.
"I'll be here waiting for you, Joey..." she murmured to him. She kissed him again, then kissing across his cheek and whispering a few words in his ear. His eyes were locked on her face when she pulled away. "I love you, Joseph Branning," she told him. He stared at her, his eyes wide. "Don't you ever forget that, Joe..." she added as the medical staff started to push him down the corridor. She stood watching him intently as he moved further away, her eyes locked on his.
This operation was surprisingly short... and Joey was still unconscious as he was wheeled back into his room. Lauren and Max were waiting for him. In a repeat of just a few hours earlier, Lauren moved her chair closer to him and ran her fingers through his hair.
"The surgery went well. There were no complications and I don't foresee there being any more problems. It was a clean amputation and I was able to save a good amount of skin so I've been able to make the end of the stump good. He's going to be in and out of consciousness for a few hours yet after the anaesthetic but he should be more himself by this time tomorrow."
"And the other leg is going to be okay?" Lauren asked.
"I checked his left leg while he was down there and there is no sign of infection. I will be monitoring it closely over the next few hours but his right leg was much more seriously injured than his left one was so I'm hopeful he should be okay now."
"Thank you, doctor." Lauren said. He left the room and Lauren's eyes ran down the length of Joey's body, her eyes staring at the bottom of the bed where his right leg should be. Her body began to shake as she let herself cry. She felt her dad put his hand on her shoulder, squeezing it gently but he said nothing, letting her have a few minutes to cry.
Joey opened his eyes and found himself looking at a very familiar ceiling. He glanced to his right and sure enough there she was... the love of his life. She was asleep in the chair she didn't look very comfortable in. He continued to look around the room and saw his uncle sitting on the chair. He wasn't sleeping though.
"How are you feeling?"
"Not sure..." he said softly.
"You haven't changed your mind again about your relationship with my daughter, have you?" Max asked, glancing at Lauren, "because hearing that from you might kill her..."
"I haven't... I need her and she said she needs me... she said they both do..." Joey murmured softly, his eyes staring at Lauren, still stunned by what she had told him just before he'd gone down for surgery. It had been just about the last thing he'd been expecting her to say.
"I'm not sure if I should tell you this but I think you need to know... when you hurt her yesterday, she was going to have a termination, Joey."
Joey stared at his uncle, his eyes widening as he took in what he'd said. "But she didn't?" he asked, needing to check with him.
Max shook his head, "No... she couldn't go through with it..." he told him.
"I'm sorry, Uncle Max." Joey whispered.
"It's not me you should be apologising to, is it?"
"I know..." Joey looked at Lauren again, his eyes running over her face. "Thanks for being there for Lauren. I know she couldn't have got through the last couple of days if you hadn't been here."
"She's my daughter, Joey... there is nothing I wouldn't do for her. You'll understand that yourself when the baby is born."
Joey shifted slightly on the bed and his eyes glanced down to the bottom. He stared at where his leg used to be, his eyes locked on the spot. He slumped back on the mattress and closed his eyes, biting his lip as he tried to control his emotions. It was a battle he was destined to never win and he covered his face with his hands. His body shook and although he hated showing the weakness, he couldn't stop them from coming. Max got up from his seat and walked over to his daughter, he shook her softly and nudged her towards Joey, leaving the pair of them alone afterwards.
"Joe..." Lauren whispered, standing and moving towards him, pulling him into a hug and trying to comfort him. "It's going to be okay, Joey... We can do this... together."
"I don't know if I have the strength, babe..."
"Then use mine..." she whispered to him, "I have the strength to get you through this... I'm going to be with you every step of the way..." She paused speaking and looked at him guiltily. "Sorry, that was a bad choice of words."
Joey laughed and it sounded so good to hear him do so. Lauren had wondered if it would ever happen again. "I love you, Lauren Branning..." he said, his hand brushing the side of her face and pushing her hair behind her ear. Lauren turned her face slightly and pressed her cheek into his hand.
"I love you too..."
It had been seven hard weeks since Joey's accident in Afghanistan and today was a big day. Today was the day Joey and Lauren were flying back to the UK. Max had had to fly back a few weeks earlier, unable to leave the car lot any longer but he vowed that him and Jack would sort out their stuff from the base and move it into Jack's flat, which Jack was giving them rent-free until they were more sorted. Joey hated the fact they were getting charity but as Lauren pointed out, they didn't have many other options open to them.
During the last seven weeks Joey had been undergoing some pretty intensive physio. He had recovered some feeling after his second operation, which was both a blessing and a curse. He was gradually getting the use of his legs back, which was definitely a blessing. He did, however, get a lot of phantom pain in his right leg and sometimes he woke up screaming in agony as he 'felt' the worst pain imaginable. It was a pain that couldn't be tackled by any drugs and there were times when he wished for the paralysis again, just so he didn't have to feel that pain anymore.
He was still in his dreaded wheelchair but now that the stump of his leg had started to heal more he would soon be getting fitted for a prosthetic leg. It was going to be even more hard work getting used to it but he was looking forward to getting it. It would make him feel more like a man again and help him remember who he used to be. They were currently sitting in the departure lounge at the airport and he could see a couple of young kids staring at him. It made him feel even more self-conscious than he already did. Lauren reached over and squeezed his hand softly. He looked over at her and saw the strain and tiredness on her face. The last couple of weeks had been as difficult for her as they had been for him. She had been so strong for him and then last week it had been his turn to be strong for her, even though his own pain was hard to bear. Lauren had miscarried and she had taken it hard. So had Joey but he had tried to hide his pain from her, not wanting to increase her guilt. She wasn't stupid though, she knew how upset he was as much as he knew how it had affected her.
Their flight was called and Joey and Lauren made their way to the departure gate. Because of his wheelchair the two of them were some of the first on the plane. Again Joey could feel he was the focus of people's attention. It was something he was starting to become used to but he hated it all the same.
They sat next to each other on the plane but it felt like they were a million miles apart. Lauren was sitting by the window and she was staring out of it. Joey tried not to notice every time she wiped at her face. It tore his heart in two to see her so broken after losing their child. And it wasn't like there was any guarantee they'd be able to have another. That was something they hadn't even contemplated since everything had happened. Joey shied away from even thinking about if a sex life with the woman he loved was possible but it was there, always at the back of his mind. Sex had always been an important part of their relationship... not the most important thing but it was pretty high on the list.
They were first off the plane and Joey hated himself as he sat watching Lauren struggle to get their bags off the carousel. He couldn't exactly help her... in fact he was the one getting help... again. It was emasculating and Joey hated it.
Max met them outside the airport and soon they were travelling back to Walford. It was a place Joey hadn't ever thought he would be returning to for more than a flying visit. Now they were moving back there and it was another thing he was unsure about. It hadn't exactly been a barrel of laughs for him when he'd left there the last time. At least him and Lauren would be together.
Joey eased himself out of the car and into his wheelchair, trying to contain his emotions as he was pushed into Jack's flat. For the last few weeks he had been on an emotional rollercoaster and he was trying really hard not to take out his bad moods on Lauren but it was difficult because she was always there and that meant she usually bore the brunt of his anger... which he knew was incredibly unfair on her. And she had enough things of her own to be angry about without him making her feel even worse. Both of them were fairly miserable at the moment but Joey hoped that him being out of the hospital would be better for both of them in the long run.
"Dad suggested we meet him over in the pub for dinner," Lauren said as she came back out of what was now their bedroom. Joey was sitting on the sofa, trying to ignore the wheelchair that seemed to have become the centrepiece of the room.
"I'm not really up to facing everyone, babe." He told her sullenly.
"Joe, please... will you try?" she asked as she sat next to him.
There was a minute's silence and then Joey nodded his head, even though it was about the last thing he wanted to do. "If one person..." he glanced at her and he didn't need to finish the sentence because she knew what he was trying to say. "Did you tell your dad?" he said softly, squeezing her hand.
"Yeah..." she said, "in the car on the way back here..." She looked at him, "We'll get another chance won't we, Joe?" she whispered, hope in her voice and on her face.
"I really don't know, babe..." he told her softly. "I'd like for us to try, sometime in the future but I can't swear how successful we'll be. I wish I could say the answer is yes... but we just don't know. We haven't even had sex since I got back, have we? We don't even know if that's possible." He looked at her face and saw the sadness written across it. He hated himself all over again for putting that look on her face. He pulled her into his arms and held her tightly. "You know I love you, don't you?"
"Of course I do, Joe." She whispered.
Lauren pushed Joey over towards the pub. She wasn't sure how the next few minutes would go. She was still surprised she'd managed to convince him to come over to the pub. It had the possibility to be a roaring success or a complete disaster. She had an inkling her dad had something planned and she kind of hoped he didn't. Joey didn't need that kind of attention and nor did she if she was being honest.
She pushed open the door and pushed Joey through it. She was blown away by what she saw. The whole square was there and there was a 'Welcome Home' banner around the top of the bar. Another sign said 'Our Hero' and it brought a lump to her throat. She stopped and glanced down at Joey, holding her breath as she saw the tension in his shoulders. She placed her hand on his shoulder, stroking the back of his neck softly. She could feel the anxiety ebbing from him as he struggled to know how to handle this situation. She kissed the top of his head gently, her other arm wrapping around his neck and hugging him close. After a few minutes she drew herself upright again, maintaining her hold on Joey and hoping she was offering him the support he needed. "Thank you all so much everyone..." she said, her voice breaking ever so slightly as the love from everyone began to get to her slightly.
Her dad stepped forward and he hugged her gently. "What do you two want to drink?" he asked.
"A beer would be great..." Joey said.
"Just a diet coke for me, dad."
"Go and sit at the table with the others and I'll be over in a few minutes." Her dad said.
Lauren pushed Joey over to the small group of tables her dad had pointed at and she could sense the tension increasing within him as they saw practically their whole family gathered around it. They were both more than aware of Morgan and Tiffany staring at Joey's right leg. Once they were seated at the table Joey put his arm around her shoulders and she leant against him. Everyone started to talk and after a while it felt like this was the closest to normal things had been for a long time.
There was tension between them when they returned to the flat. All in all the evening had been good. Lauren had managed to catch up with her sister and Uncle Jack had paid a flying visit. Joey had been a little quiet, overwhelmed by being surrounded by everyone but he hadn't shouted or screamed or thrown a tantrum so Lauren saw this as a positive sign. Of course, the night wasn't over yet, so who could tell?
Tonight would be the first night they had slept in the same bed as each other... well there had been one occasion in Germany, the night after the miscarriage when she had slept in his arms but she had been on top of the covers and they were both so exhausted and upset it hadn't been quite the same as tonight would be.
Lauren was nervous... more nervous than she'd been when she'd slept with him before. He headed straight for the bedroom and Lauren lingered in the main room, giving him a chance to sort himself out before she joined him. He was already in the bed when she walked into the room and she went over to the drawers and pulled out one of his T-shirts. "I'll be back in a couple of minutes." She said softly, dashing out of the room again without a backwards glance. He was still the same person, she knew that and she wasn't sure why she was so nervous about this. After staring at herself in the mirror for a couple minutes she realised she was scared that tonight could be the beginning of the end of their relationship. And she wasn't sure she could survive him pushing her away again. She looked herself in the eyes and made the decision she was going to have to convince him not to push her away.
Lauren was a little calmer when she walked back into the bedroom and she turned down the lights, walking over to the right side of the bed and climbing in, slipping under the duvet. Joey was laid on his back, staring up at the ceiling. Lauren lay on her side, facing towards him, staring at his profile. He was so sexy. Despite everything he was still her sexy soldier... even if he was a little weathered around the edges. It felt like there was a canyon between them and Lauren wanted to close the distance but she was unsure of what sort of reaction she would get from him. Taking a deep breath she edged forward, moving closer to him slowly but surely. She lifted his arm and wrapped it around her shoulders, pressing herself against his side.
"What are you doing?" he asked, freezing against her. He was breathing faster and Lauren knew she needed to do something quick before he went into full panic mode.
"I'm lying here with the guy I love..." she whispered.
"You remember what we were talking about earlier? About at some point seeing if a baby is possible... this is us just starting down that route."
"I'm not having sex with you, Lauren..."
She laughed quietly, "Well, that wasn't quite the reaction I was hoping for, Joe, but that wasn't what I was planning either. I just want you to hold me in your arms and to feel like there's a little bit of us that is back to being like it was before."
"I'm not sure I'm comfortable with this..." he told her truthfully.
Lauren lifted herself up so she was leaning on her elbow and looked at his face. "Trust me, Joe..." she whispered. Her hand brushed across his chest and then caressed his cheek. He looked at her and despite the dim light she could see the haunted expression on his face. "Can you do that?" she asked him.
"You know I trust you..." he replied.
"I didn't know what was going to happen in the pub earlier, Joe. I would've told you if I had," she said.
"I know that." He said.
"They meant well..." she whispered as she kissed him softly.
"I know..." he said again.
She stretched her head up and kissed his jaw then working her way down his neck until she almost reached his shoulder. Her hands tugged his T-shirt up his body and he lifted his arms and shoulders so she could pull it over his head. Her hands brushed over his body, slowing descending to the top of the duvet. She studied his face the whole time and saw the slight twitch of his jaw as her hand moved beneath the covers. "You okay?" she whispered.
"Mmm hmm..." he said although she wasn't convinced by his response.
"I love you so much, Joe." She said softly, "Every day, when I see how you're handling all that's happened I fall in love with you a little more."
"Even though I'm not the same person I was?" he asked, a slight hint of self-hatred in his voice.
"Even though..." she confirmed, "It doesn't matter to me as much as you think it does, Joe. I know you think the fact you've lost most of your right leg is going to freak me out but it really doesn't. You know what would've freaked me out though?" she asked him. He shook his head. "If you'd come home in a wooden box... I know I wouldn't have been able to handle that. It scares me now to even think about it." She took a deep breath and released it slowly, "When I think about what your team's wives and girlfriends have gone through I feel lucky."
"Lucky?" he said, unable to keep the horror off his face.
"Yes, Joe. I've still got you here with me." She said, "I haven't got to spend the rest of my life without you... so yes, I feel lucky... and then I feel guilty because I've still got you and they haven't got their loved ones." As she spoke her hand moved a little lower and she rested her hand on his boxers. His eyes widened slightly and she would swear they went a little darker. "Can I touch you?" she asked him hesitantly.
"Yes..." he sighed and she knew he hadn't understood her intentions. Lauren stared into his eyes as her eyes moved and she saw the moment when what she was going to do sank in. "Lauren, babe..." he murmured, tensing against her again.
"Trust me..." she breathed as her hand paused on his hip. He nodded his head and Lauren moved once more, her fingers moving slowly down from his right hip. This was something she hadn't done before. She had barely looked at his leg since his surgery, partially because Joey wasn't comfortable with her seeing it but also because she'd been scared. Now she was about to touch it and again she was scared. His hand was settled on her back, resting above the T-shirt she was wearing and as her fingers grazed the skin of his thigh she could feel his fingers gripping the material between his fingers. "Do you want me to stop?" she asked him, not wanting to force him to let her do this.
"No..." he murmured, "Unless you want to..." he added.
"I want to do this." She stared into his eyes and she felt the tension fade slightly. She took that as his acceptance and her hand drifted lower. She could feel the scars on his thigh now and she bit her lip softly. His hand ran up her back and then he was pushing her hair back from her face and tucking it behind her ear, reassuring her with his actions that everything was going to be okay. Her hand moved a little lower and she held her breath, part of her forgetting how to breathe as she approached the bottom of his thigh... which was also where his leg now ended. She was still staring at his face and she could see the fear on his face as her fingers grazed his skin. Relief flooded her as she touched his stump... it wasn't as bad as she'd been imagining it would be. Nevertheless a tear fell down her face and his thumb brushed it away. He turned his head away from her, anticipating her rejection. "Look at me, Joe..." she whispered. He shook his head, keeping it turned away from her. "Please Joe... I need you to trust me..." He turned his head to look at her again. "It's okay, baby..." she whispered.
"You hate it, don't you?" he asked her and she knew he was talking about his own feelings for his leg.
"No, I don't..." she told him. "I'll admit, I was scared... scared to touch it... scared it would hurt you and worried about how it would make me feel..."
"It wasn't as bad as I expected." She smiled at him softly. He exhaled sharply and she knew he believed her. "Can you feel me touching you?" she asked him. He nodded, "And it's not hurting you?" she checked. He shook his head this time. "Can I see it?" she asked him gently.
"I don't know, babe..." there was that fear again on his face.
"Joe, I think we need to do this, we need to get past this hurdle for our relationship to restart." She paused, "This is as much for you as it's for me..." she whispered.
"I don't know if I can, babe..."
"It just reminds me that I'm not me anymore..." he admitted.
"Joe, you're still the man I love... you always will be. And you're still you. Losing your leg hasn't changed the person you are. It's just given you a challenge and you once told me that you liked a challenge." He looked at her and she could see there was something else on his mind. "What is it?"
"Huh?" He frowned slightly.
"What else is on your mind?" she asked him.
"I'm scared..." he murmured.
"That all this will become too much for you..." he whispered, "that you'll have a relapse and drink and it'll be my fault."
Lauren's heart lurched and she wrapped her arms around his neck, hugging him tightly. "I'm going to be fine, Joe, I promise." She whispered to him.
"I've already pushed you to drink once... and I can't be responsible for it again."
"When are you going to believe that my drinking isn't your fault, Joe?" she told him. She pulled away from him slightly and both hands cupped his face, "I was drinking before I even knew you... to the point where I was making really lousy decisions. My drinking was never your fault, Joey... you know this."
"You nearly drank when I was at Sandhurst..."
"Yeah, because I was missing you... but the biggest word in what you just said that you seem to have overlooked was 'nearly'. I NEARLY drank... but I didn't. I went to a counselling session and an AA meeting and I spoke to you and my dad. I did exactly what I was supposed to do when I got to a point where I couldn't cope." She said, "And if I get to that point again, I will do exactly the same thing. I promise you, Joe... if I start to struggle I will tell you. I'm sure that's one of the reasons dad was so keen for us to come back here... because he thinks the same thing as you. And I'm okay with that because I know we're going to need our family around us to help us with this. I have my counsellor that I've been seeing since I came home. And I was going to regular AA meetings before your accident. I'll go to one this week... not because there's a special need but just to catch up with some friends and get back into the routine." He released the breath he hadn't even realised he'd been holding and then he pulled her into his arms, squeezing her tightly.
"I'm so proud of you, babe."
"I'm proud of you as well, Joe... Always have been but never more so than now." She stared into his eyes and let her hand run down his body. She settled it again on his boxers, "Is this okay?" she asked him again.
"Yeah..." he murmured, his eyes closing briefly as her hand slipped into his underwear and wrapped around his length. She stroked him slowly but firmly, watching his face and seeing the arousal starting to burn in his eyes.
She could feel him starting to harden and she smirked at him, "See, you're not broken, babe... you just need the right stimulation..."
"Babe..." he breathed. "Don't tease me..."
"It's only teasing if you don't intend to follow through..." she told him, leaning forward and kissing him softly, "And I very much intend to follow through on what I'm doing now." She whispered against his mouth.
"Are you sure?" he asked her softly, "After the..." his words faded.
"I think we both need this, Joe..." she said, unable to stop the tears from filling her eyes.
"So you clearly still turn me on..." he said, his voice deeper than it usually was as she continued to stroke him. "But do I still turn you on?" he asked her, fear colouring his voice again.
"Why don't you find out?" she said, smiling at him tenderly. His hand brushed down her body, caressing her skin when it slipped under the T-shirt she was wearing. She saw his eyes darken as he realised she wasn't wearing any knickers. His fingers brushed her opening and Lauren couldn't help the moan that fell from her lips.
"Mmm... I guess I do," he murmured, his mouth caressing hers in a passionate kiss as his fingers continued their exploration.
Lauren tugged her mouth from his, "Let's get rid of these..." she said, pulling at the waistband of his boxers.
"Are you sure?" he asked.
"I want to make you come, Joe..." she whispered. "We don't have to have sex... but I want to make you come. Is that okay?" she asked him, unsure of how he was going to respond.
"Only if I get to make you come as well..." he told her softly.
"Then it sounds like we have a deal." She said. She pulled away from him and pulled down the covers, revealing his leg to them both. Joey tensed slightly against her and she kissed him tenderly, "Relax..." she whispered, "You should know, Joe... most women find scars incredibly sexy on a guy..."
"I'm only interested in what one woman thinks, babe... and that's you."
"I'd always think you were incredibly sexy, Joe." She confided in him. "A few scars isn't going to change that..."
"That... is more than a few scars..." he whispered.
"Doesn't make you any less sexy, I swear." She moved from where she was sitting and moved to straddle his legs, hearing him inhale at her movement, her hand moving back to his length and stroking him firmly but gently.
"That feels so good, babe..." he murmured, his head resting on her shoulder. "It's been a long time..." he moaned. He was already so close to coming. Two of his fingers pushed inside her, touching her tenderly, feeling her body react to him. She twisted her hand on him and he groaned. "So close..." he told her, although he knew she knew that. She knew everything about him when it came to sex. She knew what he liked and what he didn't. She knew how he reacted when she touched him and she knew how to make it last longer if necessary. She wasn't doing that tonight though. This was about giving him what he needed; what they both needed. His hand moved faster, trying to catch up with what she was doing to him. He wanted them to come together. There was a rather large part of him that needed them to come together. He needed to be convinced that they were still going to work.
"Joe..." she whimpered, her hand movement pausing briefly as his thumb pressed on her clit. She turned her head and moved her mouth to his ear, "Make me scream your name, Joe..." she whispered.
"It would be my pleasure, babe..." he breathed against her neck. His fingers moved faster and a third one entered into the fray. He could feel how close she was and he was determined to make it good for her. He was going to make her scream, just like she'd asked. He was a man on a mission.
Lauren was far from inactive as she felt him work her. Her hand stroked him faster and she knew he would come with her. It was always as good as this between them. Her head rolled back and she screamed his name when his thumb pressed her clit as his fingers brushed over that sacred spot inside her. She shifted on his fingers, trying to increase the pressure he was touching her with but she needn't have worried, he touched her firmer and her peak lengthened. Her hand twisted on his length and then he was coming as well, a soft grunt against her neck as he throbbed in her hand. She stroked him gently, his orgasm still ebbing through his whole body. He felt alive for the first time since the accident.
Lauren lay in his arms half an hour later. They were both more relaxed than they had been in the last few weeks. Her head was resting on his chest and she could hear the gentle thudding of his heart. It had always been something she found so soothing but today, more than any other time, it was lulling her to sleep. She had her sexy soldier back and it felt good.
"We're going to be okay, aren't we?" he whispered.
"Yeah, Joe... we are..." she replied, turning her head and kissing his chest. "I love you, Joe."
He kissed her forehead, his hand brushing her back gently before settling on her bum. "I love you too..." he whispered.
It had been twenty-one months since Joey returned from Afghanistan. They had both been through so much since then. Joey had made a point of visiting the families of each of his men that died in the explosion. Lauren had gone with him, knowing he needed her support for each trip. She was sure he expected them to hate him; hate the fact that he had survived when their loved ones hadn't... but if anything, the reverse was true. Each woman had reassured Joey and told him they were pleased he'd survived the incident. Their words to him had given him a boost with his rehabilitation and he had approached getting fitted for his prosthetic leg and learning to walk again with a renewed vigour that Lauren hadn't seen since he'd first started his military training.
That's not to say there weren't dark days during these months. There were times when it was literally too much effort for Joey to get out of bed in the morning. He ended up going to see Lauren's counsellor, needing to talk to someone about everything he'd seen and been through and how he was feeling. Lauren had wanted him to speak to her about what he was feeling but he refused to burden her with it. The military had recommended a counsellor to him but he wanted to speak to someone he trusted and he could trust Lauren's counsellor because he knew Lauren trusted her. His counselling had improved the situation... made it easier for him to deal with the difficult days and have someone to turn to in times of crisis.
His physical recovery continued at pace. He now rarely had issues with feeling the phantom pains from his right leg and he'd only been held back slightly when he got an infection in the stump of his right leg. Joey had pretended it wasn't happening and had hidden it from everyone until he became really sick as a result of it and Lauren had to rush him to hospital. It was a tense twenty four hours while Joey fought the infection that was trying it's hardest to end his life but he came through it and he made a vow that he wouldn't hide anything like that again from Lauren.
The infection put back his learning to walk somewhat because his stump was just too sore for him to use his prosthetic leg so he had three weeks where he was confined to using his wheelchair again and then a further five weeks where he had to use crutches to get around. He was more confident now and happier to move around on his own; not ashamed of the fact he only had one leg, even when he was unable to wear his prosthetic. Yes, some people stared at him, some young kids would innocently say things that were hurtful but Joey didn't mind. And any pain those looks and words caused were eradicated at the end of the day by his gorgeous fiancée.
Joey had proposed to Lauren three months after they got back to the UK. He hadn't been able to get down on one knee but he had managed to make it romantic nonetheless. Joey asked her after the first time they'd made love since his injuries and Lauren had quickly said yes, knowing he was the person she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. Then he slipped a ring on her hand and it was only at this point that Lauren cried. He admitted that he'd asked her dad for permission to marry her and Max had told him he wouldn't let anyone else marry her; that the two of them were meant to be together. He'd taken Joey to choose the ring just over a fortnight earlier and Joey had been trying to pluck up the courage to ask her ever since. They got married six months after he'd proposed. It was just a small wedding, only family and a few friends were present but it had gone smoothly – which for a Branning wedding was a minor miracle.
Lauren walked across the grass and stood at his side. "You okay?" she asked as she slipped her hand in his.
"Yeah..." he said hoarsely, squeezing her hand.
"We can go, if you'd rather be alone..." she said gently.
"Stay..." he whispered. He stared at the graves before him; his men, all lined up together one final time. It was the first time he'd been to see them since they'd been buried; it had taken several attempts for Joey to pluck up the courage to come and see them. He felt like he should apologise to them for still being alive. Today had seemed the right day to come here though; Remembrance Sunday. He had spent the last quarter of an hour just standing before them. He lowered his head as the way he was feeling became too much again. "I don't know what to say to them." He said softly.
"You do... I know you do. You've been planning it for months." She said, encouraging him just like she had been for the last couple of years.
"Thanks babe." He glanced at her, smiling as he saw the look of adoration on her face. He stared at the graves again, focusing on that of his best friend Dave.
"Would you like me to put the flowers on them?" Lauren asked him.
"Please." He told her. She nodded her head. It took a little reshuffling so she could pick up the flowers and get to the top of each grave. Bending down she placed the small bunch of poppies against each headstone. Once she was done she moved back to Joey's side, stretching up and kissing him softly.
"You okay?" she asked him.
"I will be..." he told her, "I've got you, ain't I, babe?"
"I meant with David..." she said.
Joey glanced down at the baby he was holding, having taken him from her when she went to do the flowers. "Yeah, we're fine..." he said, smiling tenderly at the sleeping baby. Their son had been born just three months earlier, having been conceived on their honeymoon. The pregnancy had gone smoothly this time and both Lauren and Joey were enjoying parenthood. They were fortunately blessed with their son being remarkably well behaved. He wrapped his arm around Lauren's shoulders and hugged her against him, Lauren peeking at David and checking he was still asleep. Joey turned back to the graves, taking a couple of deep breaths before he spoke to the fallen men, "You all know I'm a man of few words... so this won't take too long. I wanted to thank you all for being the men you were, I couldn't have been assigned a better squad of men than the four of you. There's a little bit of me that's sorry I'm not there with you, I reckon we'd all be having a good laugh now... although I guess you probably still are, just without me. You'll all be pleased to know I got my ass into gear and sorted out my life when I got back. Lauren and I are now married and as you all kept telling me, she's pretty fucking amazing. Not that I needed to hear it from you; it's something I've known since the day I met her. I don't know how I would've got through the months after what happened if it hadn't been for her. She gave me strength when I didn't have any and kicked my ass to give me the push I needed when I was struggling to get motivated. She is the best thing I've ever done in my life and three months ago she gave me the second best thing I've ever done. I've brought him to see you today, to introduce him to you. So I'd like you to meet our son, David Joseph Branning. He's a real chip off the old block... I wish you could see him and I wish he would've got a chance to meet the four of you too. When he's older I'm going to tell him about the amazing guys I had the pleasure to serve with. And I'll bring him back to see you again, when he's bigger and can understand what the importance of this place is. I will always remember the fun times we all had together and the solid, strong, brilliant people you were. I'm proud to have served with you and I will remember you always." He stopped speaking then, not able to say anything else and not having much else to say anyway.
"That was beautiful, Joe." Lauren said quietly, kissing him softly on the cheek.
"Let's go home, babe." He said, his hand reaching up and brushing some hair back from her face and tucking it behind her ear. His hand lowered and clasped hers tightly, both of them turning away from the gravestones and walking back out of the cemetery. The perfect family, a husband in his Army dress uniform, only a very slight limp in his step as he walked without the need of a walking stick, carrying his sleeping son and holding tightly to the hand of his wife. He was grateful for the things he had in his life, his beautiful wife and gorgeous son. And yes, okay, he'd lost a leg but really he'd gained so much more as a result of it. And that was something he would always remember and cherish.
A/N: Dedicated to all the brave soldiers who put their lives on the line everyday so we can live in a safer world... and their families who give just as much.
And as a side note... sorry for disfiguring Joey and cutting off his leg. I couldn't bring myself to make him lose an arm... but I hope I made up for this with the image of him in a military dress uniform. Let me know what you thought of this story - send a review.