"What are we doing here again?"
"I need a present for my niece's birthday."
Greg nodded and followed Nick a little further down the aisle, gaze wandering over rows and rows of bright pink cardboard. And he'd never actually been in the Barbie aisle before, but he was starting to get where all the jokes came from. "How old is she?"
"Seven. Eight, maybe. A little younger than Lindsey."
"And you're sure you want to encourage this?"
Nick stopped in the center of the aisle, letting out a labored sigh before he turned to look at Greg. "This is what she's into. What's the big deal?"
"Well it's sexist, for one thing." Greg picked up one of the packages, considering the vapid plastic doll inside before he looked up again. "Sure, she's hot, but do you really want your nieces growing up thinking this is the standard they should be living up to?"
"It's just a toy, G. Now would you help me find the one she wants so we can get out of here?"
Greg frowned and set the box back down on the shelf, crossing his arms over his chest and watching Nick scan the rows of pink boxes. "You can buy into it if you want, but I'm not going to help you."
"Buy into...what the hell are you talking about?"
"This," Greg answered, gesturing at the rows and rows of Barbie accessories surrounding them. "It's a whole pink...empire. Corporate brainwashing. No kid of mine would ever have this kind of stuff, that's for sure."
"Right," Nick said, the corner of his mouth turning up in a smirk that Greg was pretty sure meant he was about to be insulted, "but you're okay with all those shoot-'em-up games you play on your Sega."
"That's different. Kids are already scary and violent, they don't need video games to teach them how to kill each other. But Barbie...she's insidious. She comes around with her cool clothes and her hot boyfriend and her nice car and she makes little girls like your niece think they should want all that stuff too."
"So you think they wouldn't want that anyway."
Greg shrugged and looked around at the tower of pink cardboard. "All I'm saying is Barbie's a pretty high standard to live up to. And I'm not so sure about that Ken guy, anyway. Seems like he's hiding something."
"Look, G, I get it, okay? But I bought her a chemistry set last year and she hated it, so this year I'm sticking with the list."
"The list? Your seven-year-old niece made a list?"
"No," Nick answered, rolling his eyes as though the answer should be obvious. "My sister e-mailed me some of the things my niece wants. And..." He paused and glanced down at the paper in his hand, "...Happy Birthday Barbie with Tiara is at the top of the list."
"Let me see that." Greg pulled the paper out of Nick's hand, glancing down the list for anything with any kind of redeeming value. There was Barbie Cruise Ship, Barbie Beauty Shop, some game he was pretty sure had to do with boy bands...by the time he got to the Barbie Think Pink Learning Notebook he decided the kid was a lost cause. "I don't ever want to meet your sisters, do I?"
Nick smiled and reached for the list, glancing around to make sure no one was watching them before he leaned in and planted a placating kiss on the corner of Greg's mouth. "If it makes you feel any better, they probably wouldn't know what to make of you either. Now can we just get the damn doll and get out of here?"
He reached for the box in question, but before he could pull it off the shelf Greg reached out and grabbed his arm. "Wait. At least if you're going to buy one of these...things, get this one."
He reached for another box, holding it up and grinning hopefully. "It's Barbie as Wonder Woman. At least that's educational."
"How is Wonder Woman educational?"
"She's a DC character," Greg answered, rolling his eyes at Nick's blank expression. "She's a superhero. She doesn't need some Ken doll to save her. She doesn't even need a convertible pink Porsche. She's got an invisible jet and a magic lasso. She could kick any guy's ass. It's empowering."
"It's not on the list."
"The list," Greg echoed, shaking his head and reaching out to grab the list and hold it up next to Wonder Woman Barbie. "Do you want your niece to grow up to be this list, or do you want her to grow up to be Wonder Woman?"
"Okay, okay," Nick said, taking the box Greg held out and rolling his eyes at Greg's triumphant grin. "But if she hates it you're taking the blame."
"She'll thank me someday," Greg said, shoving the list in his pocket and raising an eyebrow at Nick. "So you wanna go make out in the video game aisle?"
"G, there are kids here."
"So? They should be exposed to healthy relationships of all types, shouldn't they?"
"I wasn't worried about that," Nick answered, grinning and gripping Greg's shoulder to steer him out of the aisle. "I just want to get you out of here before you see the Jar-Jar action figures and start a riot in the Star Wars aisle."
"That's not real Star Wars."
"I know," Nick said, and Greg didn't have to look to know he was rolling his eyes. "I've already heard this one. Now can we get out of here before you start in on Santa Claus and ruin some poor kid's childhood?"
Greg opened his mouth to say something, but before he got the words out a warm hand clamped over his mouth. "Don't even think about it. Just shut up until we're out of here and I'll let you ruin all the childhood memories you want. You can tell me all about how Mr. Potato Head is a sign of the Apocalypse, or how Light Bright contributed to the energy crisis...whatever. Just wait until we're out of the toy store."
"Fine," he said when Nick pulled his hand away. "See if you get anything for your birthday."
Nick ignored him until he paid for the Barbie doll, thanking the kid behind the counter and gripping Greg's shoulder to steer him out of the store. When they were halfway across the mall and Nick was still ignoring him Greg let out an exasperated sigh, rolling his eyes and stopping to stare at the other man. "So you're not even going to ask?"
He caught the smirk Nick tried to hide, running a little to catch up as Nick headed toward the exit that would take them to Nick's truck. "You'd have a pretty hard time beating last year."
And Greg couldn't really argue with that – dropping off a key for Nick at the lab had been a stroke of genius, and the entire day of room service and sex in the big hotel bed hadn't been such a bad plan either. His wrists still burned with the memory every time he thought of it. He wasn't exactly sure how he was going to top that this year, but he wanted Nick to be at least a little curious. "Well now you'll never know, will you?"
It was Nick who stopped walking this time, glancing around to make sure no one was watching before he grabbed Greg's arm and pulled him close. Granted, it was the middle of the day and the mall was mostly deserted except for a few moms with strollers and some retirees using it as an air-conditioned track, but it was still unlike Nick to do anything like this in public.
Only Nick didn't kiss him right out in the middle of the mall where anyone could see them. He stopped when he was two inches from Greg's mouth, his lips twitching into that smile that made Greg's knees a little weak. "I don't need anything for my birthday. I've already got what I want."
"You sure about that?" Greg asked, leaning in just close enough to brush their lips together. "Because I can be pretty inventive when I want to."
He expected Nick to pull away, to back off and make Greg wait until they were in the relative privacy of the truck, at least, before they finished the conversation. So he was surprised when a hand landed on the back of his neck, and even more surprised when Nick caught Greg's mouth against his own, lips parted and fingers moving restlessly against his skin. And it wasn't like their relationship was a secret anymore – everyone at work figured it out before they had to say anything, and even Nick's family knew, although they more or less pretended Greg didn't exist. Nick still wasn't all that big on public displays, though, and when he pulled away Greg had to reach out and catch himself on Nick's arm just to keep himself from falling.
"I know you can, G," Nick said, grinning and pulling his hand away from Nick's neck. "What do you say we go home and you give me a preview?"
He wasn't about to pass up an offer like that, so he nodded and let Nick lead him across the parking lot. He still had no idea what he was going to do for Nick's birthday this year, but he was sure he could come up with something.