They didn't have much in common.
Not at first glance.
But sometimes circumstances throw two people together and they click, like stray puzzle pieces. Maybe they form a nonsensical picture, but their edges line up perfectly.
It was like that.
"You want some Thai?" he had offered one evening, after all the kids had gone to bed. She was alone at the kitchen table, staring at a laptop screen and massaging her scalp.
"Excuse me?" she responded. Elsewhere in the penthouse, there was conversation and rough laughter.
"The guys ordered pizza, but I'm in the mood for Drunken Noodles. Do you want anything? I'll call it in."
She hesitated. She had eaten dinner with her children, hours ago. There were leftovers in the fridge. But her stomach grumbled enthusiastically when she thought about peanut sauce and green onions.
"Sure," she said, surprising herself. "Pad Thai?"
"Coming up!" he chirped, whipping out a cell phone. She smiled incredulously when she realized he had the delivery joint on speed dial.
"I never realized that you all ate so much… food," she said, after he hung up a couple minutes later. She immediately chided herself. Awkward, she thought. Rude. But he just shrugged.
"Best part of master status, if you ask me. And I can eat whatever I want without gaining weight or worrying about gout." He patted his small belly with both hands.
"Oh, yeah. Gout is the worst. You ever hear of Piero the Gouty? Or Duke Guidobaldo? They couldn't even get out of bed for those last years. Would burst into tears if you touched their big toes."
"I always thought heart disease was the real concern," she said, thinking what is this conversation?
"Well, you know, a heart attack isn't so bad in the big scheme of things. You go quick. But gout doesn't kill you, it just hurts like a bitch."
She was silent, because what do you say after that? But instead of heading back to the living room, he sat down across from her at the table.
"What are you working on?"
"Numbers," she said with a grimace. "Nothing interesting."
But his eyes gleamed behind his glasses.
"Numbers are always interesting," he replied. He sounded completely serious, too. "What kind of numbers?"
"Are they?" she questioned, sighing. "I'm trying to figure out a monthly budget for the court. But all I've got are Rhea's recollections and a list of accounts that the Silver Circle gave us. I've never seen this much money in my life. Sure, I know what kids need… but these girls aren't used to my peanut-butter-and-jelly lifestyle. How much is enough? How much is too much?"
"Do you have bank statements?" he asked. "Receipts? Standing contracts with vendors?"
"Nothing!" she exclaimed. Her tone was a little louder and a little more frustrated than she intended, but it was honest. "Zip. Zero. Everything went up in flames at the mansion, and I don't think they had digital records. At this point, I'm not even sure of our annual income."
He cracked his knuckles and grinned.
"I can help. Not with the budgeting so much, but with the accounts. Sounds like a fun puzzle."
She couldn't help it-she raised her eyebrows high and shot him a look of intense skepticism.
"You want to help me with accounting instead of playing poker and drinking with your buddies."
"I mean, yeah. I'm an accountant. You think I want to hear Roy brag about his Swedish girlfriends one more time?"
"You really are an accountant?" Because I thought that was just a joke, she added silently. He certainly looked like an accountant, but why would an accountant guard the Pythia?
"Card-carrying CPA, thank you very much." Then his face fell a little. "Well, usually. It's been a busy year. I need to renew my license."
"A vampire accountant," she repeated, shaking her head. "I've seen a lot of weird stuff in my life, but moving in with Cassie is a whole different level."
"Vampires have a lot of money, and you know what they say." He flashed her a smile that was goofy until you saw the shrewdness in his eyes. "More money, more problems."
She laughed a little harder than necessary, because a vampire accountant, because she wasn't sure he knew he was quoting Biggie, because she'd been working on the spreadsheet all damn day and no one else gave a shit.
Tami pushed her braids behind her shoulder and scooted her chair over to make room.
"Come over here, Fred," she told him. "I'll show you what I got."
"Is this weird for you?"
Weeks later, they were holed up in their shared office. The two of them had commandeered an enormous closet off of the atrium. There was just enough room for a long desk, a wall of filing cabinets, and an extra chair shoved in a corner. Tami used it during the day, Fred during the night. Sometimes there was overlap.
"You're gonna have to be more specific, Fred," she replied without looking up from her computer. He was on the other side of the desk, facing her.
"This whole thing. You're practically running the Pythian Court after spending most of your life on the lam. Isn't it kinda strange for you and the kids?"
Tami paused for a long moment before she raised her head. His brown eyes were soft behind his glasses, but she felt like he was shining a spotlight on her. She shifted uncomfortably and let her gaze drift to the side.
"Everything has always been weird. I try not to think about it too hard."
"So you're in here, reading through some fancy governess's references for a bunch of clairvoyant little girls, and you don't just stop and think 'geez, a few months ago I was trying to blow up a bunch of Silver Circle educational facilities?'"
"Jesus Christ, Fred." She frowned at him. "You better not mention that when I start interviewing tutors."
"Sorry. I was just curious. I mean, I feel weird when I stop and think about everything."
"Do you?" Tami fixed her eyes back on the vampire in front of her. "You've been around a long time. You've been through a lot."
"Sure, but the normal stuff. A lot of cramped rooms with ledger books. Sometimes I would have to go to war with my master, but not often. Not my forte." He made a noise deep in his throat that was almost a laugh. "The day I met Cassie, we were almost eaten alive by a dragon demigod."
"Why'd you end up here?"
"Same as Marco and Rico. Mircea called his liegemen for reinforcements. We showed up. He sent the misfits to Cassie."
"The island of misfit toys," Tami replied, smiling wryly. "That's us. That's what I always told the kids-if we can't get along with the world, we're just going to create our own little world for ourselves."
"And Cassie was one of them, right?"
"Yup." Tami was hardly more than a teenager herself when she met Cassandra Palmer. She remembered the skinny, red-headed girl she had found in the shelter. She was underweight and her eyes were so haunted. At the time, Tami figured it was the usual abuse that drove young girls to the streets. She was wrong. "That's why I knew my kids would be safe and happy here. Cassie understands."
"So you feel safe and happy, too?"
There was that spotlight again. She looked down and tightened her lips.
"If Jesse's well, that's all I need."
She meant it wholeheartedly.
"Mmhmm," said Fred. "Ok." And he went back to work.
She was surprised by the dampness welling in her eyes, but she shoved away her feelings out of habit.
"And where are you going, young man?"
Tami's voice cracked through the hallway, startling her teenage son as he approached a closed door. His shoulders went up and he took a step back from the threshold, holding up a plastic bag in front of him.
"Come on, mom," Jesse whined. "Jiao and I got some donuts from downstairs. I was gonna see if Rhea wanted one."
He aimed a winning smile at her and Tami rolled her eyes to the heavens.
"Honey, that's sweet, but if Rhea's door is closed, she doesn't want to be bothered. And you also know that you have dinner prep in—" she checked her watch "—three minutes."
Tami held up a hand, cutting off his retort.
"Nuh uh. You leave Rhea be and give her the donut after dinner."
For one long moment, Jesse stared at his mother with a sour expression and she stared back.
Then he slumped his shoulders and shuffled back off down the hall, towards the kitchen, muttering under his breath all the way. Tami swung down the hall in the opposite direction, and she was muttering, too.
When she walked through the office door, Fred looked up with raised eyebrows. Tami shook her head.
"Lord save me from lovesick teenage boys."
She took a seat on the other side of the desk. Fred grinned at her pained expression.
"Rhea's got herself a little fan club. Your boy likes strong women."
"I don't need him sniffing after any women. I'm not ready for this."
"He's what, fourteen?"
Tami nodded and Fred leaned back in his office chair.
"I can remember fourteen. Four hundred years ago and change, but some things stick with you, you know? This sweet little mädchen who lived down the street, lots of dark brown ringlets under that white cap. She always smelled like fresh bread…"
Fred trailed off when he noticed his companion's incredulous expression.
"Hey, you never forget your first love," he finished sheepishly.
"No arguments there," Tami sighed. She remembered a young man who had a lot of sweet words for her until he found out she was a null. Her fingers strayed to the end of one of her braids, rubbing the frayed ends back and forth.
"She's too old for him, and I know she'll be kind. But after all we've gone through… I hate to see him get too attached to the Lord Protector's only daughter, if you know what I mean."
"You know that's not how we operate here," Fred protested.
"Here in Dante's, no. But out there in the rest of the world? The Circle's going to treat a jinx like crap, just like they always have."
"I think the Circle's going to have to deal." The vampire met her eyes squarely. "The Pythia's a necromancer, her bodyguards are demons and bloodsuckers, and the court is on the Vegas strip. And you're the only reason we're not living in squalor right now.
"Besides," Fred continued, shrugging, "You stick a bunch of people together long enough, they start to rely on each other, no matter what. You'll have Jonas eating out of your hand in a year, tops."
"You have a lot of faith in me," Tami grumbled.
"You betcha," he replied.
It was late on Christmas Eve and everyone under the age of eighteen was in bed. The adults of the Pythian Court were holed up in the kitchen, polishing off a jug of eggnog and a vat of mulled wine. Glühwein, Fred had called it. He'd made it from scratch while Tami was cleaning up dishes from dinner, narrating the recipe as he went.
"Let's do this every day," Cassie said, only slurring her words a little bit. She was curled up on Pritkin's lap. Sprawled comfortably in a kitchen chair, he was buzzed enough to accept public affection. His arms were wrapped loosely around her waist and he absentmindedly stroked her arm up and down.
"Get drunk?" Rico asked. He was perched on the edge of the counter with a open bottle of grappa he had produced from thin air.
"No!" Cassie protested. "Well, yes. But I meant- spend time together. Just relax."
"If you want to relax," said Marco, sourly, "You need to stop getting in trouble."
"I don't get into trouble, Marco! It just happens."
Marco opened his mouth to retort, but he was cut off by a high, clear voice.
"Not tonight!" Rhea glowered at all of them. She was gripping her mug of wine tightly with both hands. "Everything's fine. We're going to sleep well, and wake up in the morning, and all the children are going to open their presents and have a wonderful day."
"Knock on wood," Pritkin muttered, doing exactly that. Cassie elbowed him in the gut and he didn't even grunt. It's hard to make a dent in rock-hard abs, Tami thought, suppressing a smile.
"It's all perfect, Rhea," Cassie declared. She raised her glass of eggnog. "A toast! To Rhea! And Tami and Rico, who worked so hard on dinner and helped me wrap all of the fucking presents!"
Everyone raised their cups, except for Rico, who raised his bottle of grappa.
"To Rhea and Tami and Rico!" the others echoed, after Cassie gave them a look.
"And to Fred!" Tami chimed in, keeping her mug in the air. "He made the glue-vine!"
"Glühwein," Fred whispered. Then he smiled brightly. "Just like mom used to make!"
"To Fred!" shouted Cassie. "Who followed me to Hell and back for Christmas shopping!"
Tami grinned broadly as she saluted Fred with the mug. Unbeknownst to Cassie, Fred had also gotten a receipt for every item she had purchased in the Shadowlands. Tami had begun to appreciate the usefulness of a vampire accountant.
Now Cassie was looking around the room speculatively. Her eyes fixed on Marco, who had balanced his considerable bulk on a narrow bar stool. She gestured at him with her glass, a little too strongly-a tiny splash of eggnog flew over the rim and narrowly avoided Pritkin's face. He grimaced.
"And to Marco, who put the star on the Christmas tree without a ladder because he's so damn tall!"
Everyone saluted again and drank from their cups, except for Rhea. She looked mournfully at her empty mug and rose from the table. Rico intercepted her on the way to the glühwein, grabbing her by the hand. He raised the bottle of grappa.
"Try some of this, topolina. It'll put hair on your chest."
Rhea flushed pink all the way to her hairline, but Rico didn't let go of her hand until he had poured a couple of fingers of liquor into her mug. She raised it, gingerly, to her lips, and took a sip.
"It's good," she said, staring into the vampire's eyes. "Like wine, but fiery."
"Just like you, topolina," he replied, winking at her. Her blush deepened and she stumbled her way back to her seat. Cassie didn't notice; she was busy murmuring something into Pritkin's ear. Judging by the look on his face, her words were not fit for public consumption.
Tami slid her eyes over to Fred and raised an eyebrow. He shrugged almost imperceptibly. She turned to Marco and he nodded at her.
"It's time for me to check on the guard," he said, pushing himself to his feet. "And I'll remind all of you that a dozen small children will be sprinting down the stairs in about seven hours. If you're still hungover in bed, I'm going to let them wake you up."
"Thanks, Daaaaaaad," Cassie said in a sing-song voice. She stuck her tongue out at Marco and slid off of Pritkin's lap to her feet. "Or should I say Grandpa?" She started snickering to herself.
"Alright, then, time for bed," Pritkin commented, wrapping an arm around the tipsy Pythia's shoulders. She didn't stop laughing as he began to lead her away. "Happy Christmas, everyone."
Slowly, they all rose and melted away, saying good night as they left. Rhea walked up the stairs and a moment later, Rico was nowhere to be seen. Tami pursed her lips and shook her head. She turned around and the only one left in the kitchen was Fred. He had rolled up his shirt sleeves.
"You go to sleep, too," he told her. "I'll clean up."
"Yes, I'm sure."
For a few long seconds, she studied him in the soft, warm light. His thin brown hair was slightly tousled, his thick glasses folded up in the pocket of his red sweater vest. He looked like an assistant bank manager at a holiday party… except, as always, for the too-shrewd eyes that were staring back at her. Impetuously, she strode a few steps forward and flung her arms around him, squeezing him tight.
Fred tensed at the sudden contact, but after a moment he raised his arms and hesitantly wrapped them around her. Tami buried her face in his sweater vest, which was soft cashmere. The body underneath was also soft, but his shoulders were wide and his arms were strong.
"Thank you, Fred," she whispered.
"For washing the glasses?" he asked, uncertainly.
"For giving a shit." She was a little drunk and surprisingly comfortable. She didn't let him go.
"I like being useful," he murmured.
"You're not just useful. You're a good person."
"That doesn't really follow vampire logic," he replied, voice rueful. Tami pulled back far enough to look him in the eye, but didn't let go of him.
"If a null can manage the Pythian Court, then a vampire can be an altruist," she told him, raising her chin and her eyebrows and daring him to disagree. He just wrinkled his nose. Tami leaned over, kissed him lightly on the cheek, and released him.
"Merry Christmas, Fred," she said softly, before turning and walking away.
His eyes followed her all the way out the door.
In early February, a plague struck and wiped out the entire court.
That's how Jesse framed it, at least.
"Tell Jiao that he can have all my Magic cards if I die," Tami's son said weakly, lying in a pile of wrinkled, sweaty sheets.
"I don't think that's likely," was Tami's dry response. She looked at the thermometer in her hand. "Your fever is 100.4. Drink the gatorade and stay in bed."
"Aww, man," muttered Jiao on the other side of the room. Tami shot him a look.
"You, too, kiddo. I don't want to see you leave this room unless you have to pee. Got it?"
"Yes, Mom," they chanted in chorus. Tami ruffled Jesse's hair and then walked over to drop a kiss on the younger boy's brow.
"I have to go check on the girls, but you two call if you start feeling worse, ok?"
She bustled out the door and made a beeline for the bathroom, where she scrubbed her hands in the sink and counted to thirty. Next stop was the kitchen, where she grabbed another twelve-pack of gatorade for the dormitory. Pritkin was leaning against the counter, staring into space.
"How's Cassie doing?" she asked.
"She finally fell asleep. I went upstairs to check on the littlest ones."
"You're looking a little shell-shocked, soldier," Tami joked. He closed his eyes.
"A five-year-old just vomited phlegm… all over me," he said in a quiet voice. "And I can't find any whiskey."
"Did you change your clothes?" Tami asked, alarmed.
"I washed my hands and toweled off most of it."
"Get out!" she bellowed. "Take a shower now and don't you dare come into my kitchen again until you're sanitized!"
"Tami, it's fine. I don't get sick."
"Sure, but can viruses live on your skin?" Tami made a shoo-ing motion with her hands. "Out, Typhoid Mary! There are at least five children in this apartment that aren't sick, and I swear to god we're going to keep it that way."
"But don't you-"
Pritkin closed his mouth, set his jaw grimly, and pushed away from the counter. Tami didn't stop glaring at him until he was out of sight. Then she hauled the gatorade upstairs, distributed it to a room full of initiates, divvied up a box of acetaminophen, applied hugs and kisses as necessary, and calmly walked back down to her own bedroom.
She shut the door, crawled onto her bed, and screamed into a pillow until she ran out of breath. Then she began a breathing exercise that she had first learned when she was pregnant, years ago-two short breaths in, one long breath out. After a minute she felt calmer.
Behind her, the door creaked open. Tami withdrew her face from the pillow and turned her neck to the side. She wasn't really surprised to see Fred standing there. He was holding a laptop under his arm and his expression was somber.
"Pritkin told me you were looking a little stressed out," he said with a weak smile. He took a few tiny steps inside and shut the door behind him.
"I'm fine," Tami sighed. She didn't move. "I just need five minutes. Asma was looking a little green and I think my grandma's ginger tea-"
"Yeah, nope," Fred interrupted. "We had a talk and decided you should rest for awhile. Marco is going to move Asma, Phoebe, and Jeannie down to Cassie's room so Pritkin can watch them all at once."
"I'm not sure he can handle that," Tami grumbled, pushing herself upright. "Man was looking traumatized. I'll take a break soon, I promise. I'll just-"
"Nope," Fred said again. "Stay put. We got it."
Tami rolled her eyes and started to swing her legs around the edge of the bed.
But suddenly and soundlessly, Fred was sitting on the bed next to her, blocking her escape, and he had his hand around her upper arm.
"Sorry," he said, that slightly terrified smile still on his face. "You're not leaving this room until you take a nap."
"Oh no you don't, Fred."
Fred ignored her and popped open his laptop.
"Do you want to watch something? I've been working through Parks and Recreation."
"Fred, I will fight you."
"I have a lot of stuff in my queue, though. Have you seen that British baking show yet? It's good, but I have to put on the subtitles."
Tami tried to pull away from the vampire, but Fred's hand didn't budge. He wasn't even holding her tightly. She glared at him and he shrugged his shoulders. Then he reached into his pocket and handed something to her.
"I also brought you this. When was the last time you sat down for a meal?"
She looked down. It was a chocolate chip granola bar, the kind she always kept on hand for the kids. She slumped down and let out a long sigh. And grabbed the granola bar from him.
"I guess I'm pretty exhausted," she admitted. Begrudgingly.
"You're almost worse than Cassie, is what you are." He squinted his eyes at her and it wasn't even close to intimidating. "If I let you go, do you promise not to get up or punch me?"
"I promise," she said, after a beat. Fred nodded and let go of her arm, but he didn't move.
"So what are we watching?" he asked
"...British Baking Show," Tami said. "But I want to watch the episode where they all make yeast cakes." She took a bite of her granola bar and settled in against Fred's shoulder as he queued it up in the browser. As promised, there were subtitles.
The next thing Tami knew, she was plastered against Fred's side and his arm was around her. There was a tiny bit of drool coming out of the side of her mouth. She felt groggy and confused and she had a splitting headache.
"What…" she groaned, cracking her eyes open. Instead of the baking show, Jessica Jones was on the screen.
"You've been asleep for like, two hours," Fred said, looking down at her with his soft brown eyes.
"I don't feel so good," she mumbled. The vampire shifted and leaned over towards the side table. When he leaned back, he was holding a steaming mug of ginger tea.
"Honestly, you don't look so good, either. Drink this."
"How…" Tami wasn't feeling very articulate. She took the mug and stared down at it dumbly.
"Rico dropped it off a few minutes ago. He made a batch for everyone."
She wrinkled her forehead at him and he grinned.
"Vampires are telepathic, remember? I have some talents."
Tami took a few sips and the warm, spicy liquid unglued her tongue from her teeth. She swallowed gratefully.
"Fred," she said, emphatically. "You're the best boyfriend I've ever had, and we're not even dating."
"And I haven't even baked you any lebkuchen yet," he deadpanned. His round, pleasant face was inscrutable, but his arm tightened ever so slightly around her shoulders.
A week later, the plague had passed, except for a few lingering coughs. The vampire staff joked about their caretaking duties and made fun of Roy, who had been barfed on by three different children in the same day.
In gratitude, Tami ordered a case of Cuban cigars and handed them over to Marco for distribution. She attached firm instructions that they could not smoke them inside of the Pythia's penthouse.
She woke up early on February 14 and went through her normal morning routine. Since she was finally feeling less haggard, she teased her hair out into a curly ponytail and put on a little eyeliner.
Still got it, girl, she told herself in the mirror, ignoring the lingering circles under her eyes.
On her way out, she discovered a red envelope lying just beside the door. Her name was written in a copperplate hand on the front. She picked it up and opened it ever-so-carefully. Inside was a creamy sheet of paper covered in the same even, elegant script.
Dear Tamika Hodges, it began. On this day, the 14th of February, I would like to take you out to a restaurant for a fine meal and a glass or two of wine. Maybe you can tell me about your magic biscuit recipe instead of spreadsheets and investment accounts. If you are not interested, that is absolutely totally fine and it's not weird and I promise to never ever bring it up again, no hard feelings. But Cassie said I should ask. So I'm asking.
Yours truly, Fred.
Tami read it. Then she read it again.
"Motherfucker," she said softly to herself. She patted her hair, threw the note on her side-table, and marched out of her room with her head held high. She poked her head into the office, but Fred wasn't there. She checked the kitchen next-nada.
Cassie's door was open, so she looked inside. The Pythia was perched on the edge of her bed and Fred was seated on the floor. They were both holding bagel sandwiches and they looked at her with wide eyes as she stormed in.
Fred looked a little terrified.
"What time?" Tami said, staring him down and ignoring Cassie. Fred swallowed heavily and lowered the bagel from his mouth.
"S-seven o'clock?" he asked, stuttering a little.
"Thai food?" Tami proposed, putting her hands on her hips. He started to smile.
"Sounds good to me," he chirped. Tami gave him a thumbs-up and he began beaming at her. The sunny smile made him look surprisingly handsome, and her heart twisted a little as she studied him.
You're too hard, Tami. Chill out, Tami. Just relax, Tami. Don't be so serious, Tami.
That's what men had told her all her life. Including Jesse's father. She hadn't gone on a date in almost four years.
But she'd never gone out with a vampire accountant before. And she was willing to be surprised.
"Pick me up at 6:30," Tami said, and she sashayed back down the corridor.
There was a song in her heart all day.