Remus had just pocketed Tonks' gift and decided to call it a night when there was the noise of someone stumbling upstairs. He frowned, glancing at his watch and wondering what on earth any of the children – or Molly – would be doing out of bed so late. Especially after they'd all had a mug of Sirius' mulled wine, and theoretically should be incapacitated for hours.
He got to his feet, thinking that perhaps Sirius' stupor had worn off and he needed some kind of assistance, and went to investigate, even though offering assistance to a post-stupor Sirius was arguably his least favourite late night task.
But rather than Sirius' limp form strewn somewhere, letting out a plaintive moan for help, Remus found Tonks. She was standing near the front door, her arms full of a box brimming with tinsel, wincing because every time she put her foot down, the boards beneath her creaked, and Mrs Black took a sharp, anticipatory breath behind her partially closed curtain.
Tonks met his eye, gazing at him with an odd mixture of gratitude and embarrassment, and Remus smiled to let her know he understood her predicament, his insides lighting up at the thought that she was much more fun to help than her inebriated cousin. He stepped towards Mrs Black's painting, easing the curtains into his hands in preparation, and then motioned for Tonks to step back the way she'd come. Tonks took a step towards the door, and when the floorboard creaked beneath her feet, he grimaced in expectation at the very second she did.
But the tirade from Mrs Black about half-breeds and shape-shifting freaks never came, and as Tonks inched to the side and up the stairs, weighing every step carefully and biting her lip hard in concentration as she placed her feet, Remus quietly drew Mrs Black's curtain more firmly around her, and then edged down the hall and up the stairs to join her.
Once they were both ensconced in the drawing room, Tonks let out a long sigh of relief. "Thanks," she said. "I thought – well, one false move and I'd have woken the whole house up."
Remus doubted it. Sirius' mulled wine had been more than potent enough to knock everyone out for the foreseeable.
His eyes roved her face, taking in her festive red hair that somehow – against all laws of rhyme and reason – suited her, and her dark, beckoning eyes that twinkled even more than usual in the darkness. "You're here late," he said, smiling and turning his wand on the fire, lighting it and making shadows dance around the room, over the Christmas tree and decorations, the light from the flames making the baubles glint orange and emphasising the kindness of Tonks' expression.
Tonks rolled her eyes. "Hmm," she said. "Didn't intend to be – I was supposed to be finished at eight, but I had a load of stuff I needed to get done so I can take a proper break for Christmas."
He hummed sympathetically, and wondered if this wasn't the moment to tell her how he felt – firelight and impending Christmas were both on his side for a romantic setting – and the gift in his pocket was poking his leg, attempting to give him the encouraging prod he needed to give it to her.
Tonks juggled the box in her arms, and the noise attracted his attention. "Oh, let me help you," he said, reaching for the box and lifting it out of her arms, putting it on the dresser. He gestured vaguely to the contents and then met her eye and raised an eyebrow. "In the mood for portable festive spirit?" he said, and she sniggered.
"No," she said. "I had this stuff at my flat, but I'm not going to be there much, so I thought I'd put it to use here, maybe."
He raised his eyebrows and nodded in approval, trying to banish the idea that this was all some excuse to see him, and failing. Tonks shrugged. "Thought it'd be nice for Sirius," she said. "Putting up all the Christmas stuff seemed to really cheer him up."
"Hmm," he murmured, and glanced at her, meeting her eye with a smile, which she returned.
"Where is he, anyway?"
"Asleep. We – er – well, we had a bit of a late night last night, and then he made some mulled wine that was a little heavier on the wine than the mull – "
"Oh," Tonks said, smiling in realisation. "So much for my plan, then."
Remus swallowed, his eyes flickering from the box of tinsel to her pointedly disappointed yet stoic smile, and then back again. She'd presented him with the perfect opportunity for them to spend some time together, for him to maybe find the perfect moment to give her her gift, or to inch slowly towards telling her – or showing her – how he felt.
He decided not to waste it, a proverb about fortune favouring the brave flitting through his mind. "Well, not necessarily," he said. "If you'd still like to – " He gestured to the box of tinsel and then waved vaguely at the room. "I'm always in the mood to deck the halls – unless you'd rather wait?"
"No," Tonks said, grinning. "No time like the present, and all that."
"Indeed," he said, and took a couple of steadying deep breaths to try and arrest the deafening pounding of his seasonally poetic heart.
Remus turned to the selection of decorations Tonks had brought, nonchalantly picking up one end of a string of bright red tinsel and trying to extract it from the box. A bit of decorating, he thought, would set the mood nicely. He gathered up the string of tinsel in his hand, looking for the other end.
But the tinsel kept on coming.
He pulled harder, and yet more emerged, and then more and more until it pooled at his feet and he was beginning to wonder if it wasn't some kind of novelty infinite tinsel which she'd brought to play a joke on him. "What is..?" he asked, meeting her eye with what he fancied must be a rather baffled expression. Tonks sniggered into her fingers.
"It's extra long," she said. "I bought it last year to do the whole lounge in one go."
"Oh," Remus said, still battling with the ever increasing pile in his hands.
Eventually, the end was in sight, and he breathed a sigh of relief, although the sigh turned out to be premature, since the end was tightly wound around another string of the stuff, and yet more was wound around that. As he pulled on the red string he ended up bringing the other couple of strings – one blue one with tiny silver stars nestling amongst it and another in sparkling gold – with it, and Tonks laughed as he juggled the three, slippery strings in his hands, dropping more than he managed to hold onto and ending up with a small mountain of tinsel up to his knees. He looked, he suspected, rather like an inept Muggle magician whose infinite hanky trick had gone a bit awry. He let out a brief huff of amusement, before giving up and letting all of it fall to the floor in one tangled, smugly sparkling, mess. "You know what we need?" he said.
"A time-turner so I can back to last year and put that lot away neatly?" Tonks said, and he laughed.
"That might be handy," he said, trying to step out of the pool of tinsel he'd created at his own feet with as much dignity and finesse as he could, "but I was thinking rather more about some mulled wine. I think there's some left."
He raised an eyebrow in question, Tonks nodded, and after properly extracting himself from the clingy clutches of the tinsel, Remus went downstairs to pour them both a large mug full of the cinnamon and clove scented red wine.
There was plenty left – he thought Sirius had rather over-estimated everyone else's drinking prowess as well as his own – and as he selected a mug bearing the legend 'Bah hum mug' for Tonks and a Chudley Canons one for himself, he couldn't help marvelling at how tired he'd felt, and how alive and awake he was now she was here.
It wasn't an effect he was unused to – many nights after missions she'd somehow managed to inspire him to stay up for and extra hour or so to talk, or to laugh, and even saying goodbye some nights had taken them in excess of twenty minutes. It was one of the reasons he liked her. She made him feel –
He wasn't really sure what the word was. When she was around he was excited, and nervous – in fact, she made him feel like he had when he'd spent months exchanging furtive glances of lust and longing in the Hogwarts library with Olivia Crosby, although he hoped he was a little better with girls now than he had been then.
He frowned at the thought that his display with the tinsel rather proved otherwise, but took solace in the fact that he really didn't think Tonks was the kind of girl who'd hold tinsel-separating ineptitude against him.
He went back up to the drawing room, handing Tonks the bah hum mug and taking a sip of his mulled wine. Tonks raised her mug to her lips, took a sip, and her eyes widened. She let out a slight cough. "My," she said, a little hoarsely, "that is strong."
"Hmm," he murmured. "More than two mugs would, I suspect, knock a hippogriff out."
"Explains what happened to Sirius, then," she muttered, meeting his eye cheekily and blowing on her mulled wine.
"Actually," Remus said, "he managed six before he retired for the evening."
"How many have you had so far?"
"Just the one," he said, "but I am feeling a bit tipsy, actually."
Tonks laughed. " S'alright," she said. "I won't arrest you for decorating under the influence."
Tonks grinned, and there was something intoxicatingly coy about it. "How'd you get on the other day, anyway?" she said. "Did you find something for your mum?"
"Yes," Remus said. "Inspiration struck."
"Good," Tonks murmured, taking another sip of her mulled wine. "I'm glad you've found something she'll like."
"Well, something I hope she'll like."
Tonks raised an eyebrow. "Only hope?" she said. "Isn't she contractually obliged to love whatever you get her?"
"Yes," he said, "but it'd be nice if when she made a delighted face on opening it, it wasn't a fake one."
Tonks smiled. "That's true," she said. "No-one wants fake gratitude. Puts rather a crimp in your Christmas spirit."
"I'm sure she'll love it," she said.
"You sound very certain," he said, hiding a smile behind his mug as he took a sip of his wine.
"Mmm," she said, eyeing him appraisingly. "Well, you just seem the sort of person who'd buy people things they'd like."
"Hmm," she said, and he wondered if it was the firelight, or if she was actually blushing. "Anyway," she said, with rather more gusto than the word deserved, "shall we decorate?"
They set their mugs down and crouched on the floor next to the twinkling pile of tinsel that he'd so deftly liberated from its box, agreeing that they should get to it while they were both upright and reasonably sentient.
It took them a while to untangle the tinsel – longer, he suspected, than was strictly necessary because every time their hands brushed they'd meet each other's eyes and it'd feel like the world had stopped spinning. And then one of them would laugh, or mutter something about tinsel being pesky stuff, or make a joke about it being clingy, and they'd carry on trying to unravel the stuff until it happened again.
Eventually, though, they both had a string in each hand and no idea where to put them. "I think I've spotted the flaw in the plan," Remus said, getting to his feet and gesturing vaguely to the room that was already brimming with decorations. "The only thing in here that isn't appropriately festive is us."
Tonks chuckled. "Well that's easily fixed," she said, and took out her wand, hooking one end of the tinsel he was holding with a spell and flicking it deftly around his neck like a feather boa.
He raised an eyebrow at her and she grinned. "What do you think?" he said. "Is red my colour?"
"You look like a dame," she said, covering her mouth with her hand and laughing into her fingers.
"You know, from panto," she said. "My Muggle gran used to take me every year – the dame is a bloke who dresses as a middle-aged woman. He normally gets all the best jokes, though."
"Oh I know what a dame is," Remus said, tossing one end of the tinsel over his shoulder in a mock-flounce that earned him a larger grin from Tonks. "I was just astounded that you'd think me one when I'm clearly leading lady material."
Tonks laughed into her fingers again, and then reached for her mulled wine, taking a sip. "I used to go every year too," he said. "I had Muggle grandparents."
"Oh," she said, eyes widening in surprise. "I didn't know you had – "
She trailed off, biting her lip and grinning at him sheepishly. He inched his eyebrow higher. "The other day you were surprised I have a mother and now you're surprised I have grandparents," he said. "I really think it's time we had that talk about cabbage patches."
She gave him an admonishing poke on the shoulder. "Are you ever going to let me live that down?" she said.
"Not in this lifetime," he said, taking out his wand and swirling the blue and silver tinsel Tonks was holding about her neck a couple of times while she laughed.
"What do you think?" she said, cocking her head and indicating the neckwear he'd given her and then the tinsel he was sporting. "Will it catch on?"
"It's undoubtedly festive," he said. Tonks toyed with the tinsel at her neck in an adorably irritated fashion.
"Itches a bit, though," she said sheepishly.
Reluctantly they both unravelled their tinsel, and then by unspoken but mutual agreement, swapped, so that she could add the red tinsel to the tree and he the blue to the mantelpiece. "So which was your favourite?" Tonks said, and Remus raised an eyebrow at her in question. "Panto," she said.
"Cinderella," he said, wondering if it weren't a rather odd thing to admit, "although I'll confess I always wanted to boo Prince Charming and root for Buttons."
Tonks laughed. "What?" he said. To take his mind off the blush burgeoning on his cheeks, Remus fixed his attention on adorning the mantelpiece with the tinsel. "Buttons and Cinderella are quite clearly a better match than she is with the Prince – I mean the only thing the Prince really knows about her is that she's got small feet. Hardly the basis for a lasting relationship."
"I suppose you were rooting for the Genie and Aladdin to get it on as well?" Tonks said, her voice dancing with amused derision.
Remus regarded her over his shoulder and raised an eyebrow. "Actually I always fancied Wishy-Washy and the Genie had a bit of a thing for each other," he said, biting back a laugh.
"Really?" she said.
"Oh yes," he said, turning back to the mantelpiece and needlessly fluffing the tinsel into position.
Tonks' snigger was almost – but not quite – drowned out by the rustle of the extra-long string of bright red tinsel as she manoeuvred it into place around the tree. "Which was your favourite, then?" he said.
"Dick Whittington," she said.
He opened his mouth to say that he'd always been quite fond of that one too, but didn't get the chance. "And I'd prefer it if you didn't besmirch my childhood memories by insinuating that Dick had a thing for his cat," she said.
He clutched his chest in mock offence, and she laughed. "I wasn't about to insinuate any such thing," he said. "It's quite clearly written into the script…."
Tonks rolled her eyes at him but chuckled anyway, finishing draping the tinsel around the tree with a flourish. She helped him cover the small bookcase in the corner with the gold string, and Remus leant against the dresser, standing back to admire their handiwork. Tonks joined him, bumping his hip with hers. "What do you think?" he asked.
"I think it looked better on you than it does on the tree," she said, nodding at the red tinsel twinkling out at them from between the pine branches.
"You think?" he said, turning towards her ever so slightly.
"Hmm," she said. "Suited you."
Their eyes met.
She bit her lip.
His breathing quickened.
They were standing very close – more than friends close, and they both knew it.
In the firelight, with the glittering glow of decorations all around them, Tonks looked particularly fetching, and he knew that here it was, the perfect opportunity to kiss her. She smiled up at him with something that looked a little bit like hopeful expectation, and Remus swallowed.
His heart pounded – but from nowhere, doubt started to creep in, completely unbidden.
What if it wasn't hopeful expectation in her eyes at all? What if it was just a friendly – slightly tipsy – twinkle? What if the glittering glow from the tinsel was playing tricks on him, letting him see what he wanted to see, rather than what was there?
His chest constricted. It wasn't as if he had a stellar record with this kind of thing – in fact, he thought that to find a man with poorer romantic judgement he'd have to go back as far as ancient Rome.
But the way she was looking at him….
What he needed was a reason to kiss her.
A reason other than that he wanted to.
A reason other than that he thought she might possibly want him to.
A reason other than that the thought of kissing her had been so much on his mind recently that he'd barely had two other thoughts to rub together.
What he needed, he thought, was the auspice of tradition: he needed mistletoe.
Then, if he was wrong, she'd just assume he was being festive – or that he'd had too much mulled wine – and she wouldn't hold it against him. And if he wasn't wrong and she did reciprocate his feelings – his knees went a little jelly-like at the thought – she'd make the most of the opportunity, and he'd know, then, how she felt.
Mistletoe was definitely the answer.
The place was littered with the stuff, and yet he knew – having Conjured the vast majority of it himself – that there wasn't any anywhere near where they were standing.
He thought – momentarily – about trying to somehow edge her out into the hallway where he'd put a rather impressive spray of the stuff, but an altogether simpler solution to his problem quickly presented itself.
Furtively, he reached for his wand, and while he held her gaze as a distraction, Conjured a sprig of mistletoe just above their heads.
Look up, look up, look up, he thought.
Tonks' eyes didn't waver from his.
Hell, he thought.
Moments passed. He reiterated his silent plea for her to look up, even twitching his wand a little and making the mistletoe shake with an – he thought – unmissable rustle. But her huge, dark eyes stayed fixed on his – which under any other circumstance would have had his insides leaping in the air and clicking their heels, but now just made them shrink in disappointment.
Eventually, she cleared her throat.
"Well," she said, with what he fancied was rather false brightness, "it's getting late."
Remus internally called himself a moron. He'd let the perfect moment slip through his fingers. "Hmm," he murmured, feeling it was a rather inadequate reply and didn't really make up for his moronity. If that was even a word.
"I'll say goodnight, then," she said.
"Ok," he replied dumbly. And then, feeling as if he really did owe her something, he added "this has been nice."
He was still hoping with every inch of his being that she'd look up and see the berries and leaves above their heads.
But she didn't. She just shot him a smile that twisted his insides and replied with a murmur of agreement. "Goodnight," she said softly, and he echoed her even more softly.
As she disappeared into the hallway and her footsteps retreated, Remus dropped his head onto the doorframe with a quiet thunk, and then beat it gently against the frame another couple of times for good measure.
He made a mental note to adjust his sprig sizes in the future.
He sighed and collected their mugs, taking them down to the kitchen to wash them.
He rinsed the mugs without paying much attention to the task in hand, lost in an idle daydream about Tonks and mistletoe and her face lit with dancing firelight, and then climbed the stairs to his bedroom.
He fingered the gift still in his pocket.
Christmas presents had always been a tricky thing for him, and this one was the trickiest of them all, because he'd never cared quite so much about a gift being well received.
He tried not to be too disheartened by the lack of romantic progress he'd made that evening. After all, there were still a couple of days until Christmas, and that meant, hopefully, plenty more opportunities for him to find the perfect moment to give her his present, the perfect time to let her know – subtly, but undoubtedly – that although he hadn't wrapped it and put it under the tree, his heart was hers for the taking.
A/N: Thanks for reading, and especially to those of you who reviewed. Reviewers this time get their pick of seasonal treats: Flirty Remus, who makes mulled cider and peers at you through his fringe as he drinks; Sexy Dame Remus, who wears tinsel and insists you do the same; and Thoughtful Remus, who comes over to help you get the pine needles out of the carpet with a handy spell.