A/N: The situations presented were made possible by the blatant inconsistencies of J.Peel's system. It's almost impossible to get the rules wrong; there are none that he remembers long enough to make concrete. It is proven that Oracle can strengthen his projection if need be, and in areas with a weak magical field (i.e. Earth) but it is never explained why he doesn't strengthen it in times that it truly matters.

Warnings: Score is a native New Yorker, and a teenage boy at that. What do you think you'll find? At any rate, this is all controversial material. Anticipate mixed results, that I do.

-- scotch and copper

                fin 2/14 //ed 2/16 thru 4/12

Score Caruso carefully added a last swirl of frosting and stepped back triumphantly.

For all intents and purposes the item on the counter was a cake. It was not a particularly good cake –Score had given up lying to himself—and it was true that Valentine's Day didn't usually involve a cake, but it was still a pretty good idea anyway and the bright red letters did look kind of nice on the pink frosting.

He turned the plate it was on, admiring it from all sides. There was a difference, he concluded, between the art of magicking things up and the art of making them from scratch. Though it might have been better had he cheated to make it, effort had been made, and that, in a way, was more important than the product.

Something suddenly caught his eye; he stopped the tray's rotation and leaned in closer, frowning.

Happg Valentine's Day.

"Well, that sucks," he muttered. He lifted a finger, then hesitated, wondering if there was a way to fix it without wrecking the entire word. Maybe if I went from the side…?

"More icing."

Startled, Score spun, fingers tightening reflexively around his knife. Pixel stepped back, hands darting into the air. "Hey! Sheesh! It was just a suggestion!"

"What are you talking about?" Score snapped, then finally appeared to notice his friend's anxiety. "Woah, sorry, did I scare you?"

"No," Pixel said, and breathed a sigh of relief when the knife lowered. "Guess I startled you, huh?"

"Guess you did."

"Had some trouble finding you."

Score leaned back against the counter, thumb tracing a scar on the handle of the utensil. "Yeah, this kitchen's kind of hidden. Doubt Garo-whatshisface did a whole lot of cooking for himself. What do you think, take-out Greek? Italian? Never mind. How did you find me?"

Pixel held up his fist, then opened it to reveal the ruby. "Ta daa," he said.

Score blinked, then blinked again as a clump of frosting fell from the knife to dot the floor. "I thought you couldn't find people with that thing," he said, bending to scoop it back up.

"You can't."

He ignored the grains of dirt on the pink smudge with the ease of practice and stuck his finger into his mouth. Maybe Pixel was right, he realized absently. The frosting, at least, was a tasty success, and the more he slathered on the better he could hide the fact that the cake itself had the consistency of a fossilized turd. "So how did you find me?"

Pixel returned his gem to his pocket. "I traced your pants."

Score paused, debating whether or not to be concerned, and decided against it. It was too good a day to be worried about the abnormalities of his castle-mate. He returned to his work, absently setting the knife down on the counter. Hearts would be good too, he decided, and reached up to pluck several strands of hair from his head.

Pixel wrinkled his nose as Score transformed them into candies. "What's this holiday again? And can't you use something besides your hair to make food?"

"Dude, I already told you, it's Valentine's Day. It's kind of a sissy holiday, but I figure what the hell. It's a good excuse to pig out and eat sweets."

"Since when do you need an excuse?"

"As for the hair," he continued, ignoring him, "you ain't seen nothing yet. I've already had a couple glasses of scotch made from some rainwater. Later tonight I'll morph my piss into beer and we'll see how that goes down. Usually it all happens the other way, but you know how that goes."

Pixel didn't. "But what's the holiday for?" he pressed instead. "Besides, aren't you kind of young to be drinking alcohol?"

Though the other boy's back was to him, Pixel could sense him grin. "Sixteen's a man's age. And didn't you know? Valentine's Day is for sweeties. You know, boyfriends and girlfriends. You should see it back where I come from. Mom always loved it… The display stuff in the windows is all pink and red and crap and old people are kissin' in the streets and there're parties and people being nice to each other… man, it's a blast."

Pixel inclined his head. Not for the first time he noted that his friend's street argot thickened when he talked about home, and he surprised himself by feeling a surge of empathy. Though he never found himself missing his own world, Score sometimes seemed genuinely regretful he wasn't back on his, and while Pixel himself couldn't relate he could appreciate the other boy's feelings of loneliness. "I don't miss the people," Score had said when Pixel had mentioned it to him at one point. "I miss the feel. That city's got a rhythm… I dunno, I still feel it sometimes, calling to me. Like a siren…"

"Is that why you're wearing all that red?" he asked.

Score nodded, carefully spreading the frosting down the sides. "Yeah. Ain't my best color, but I figure no one's really around to see me anyway, and I'm sure as fuck not wearing pink." He threw a mischievous grin over his shoulder. "You, though… I think you'd look good in it. How about some pretty stockings? And cute little lace-up shoes?"

Pixel blushed hotly. "I think you're mistaking me for Helaine," he murmured, and reddened further when Score tossed him a derisive look. "And I'm not going to dress up for a holiday I don't even know about, so you can forget it."

Score 'tch'ed good-naturedly. "Somebody's getting their panties in a twist."

Deciding some battles weren't worth the effort to wage, Pixel shrugged it off and peered over the other boy's shoulder. It did look better with more frosting, he realized with some satisfaction. "Happg Valentine's Day," he said seriously.

"I know, I know!" Suddenly cross, Score rubbed a thumb down the top of the letter. "I can't help the fact I got lousy cursive."

Pixel located the tube of red frosting and neatly corrected the mistake. "It looks pretty good otherwise," he said, handing the tube to Score. "I didn't know you knew how to bake."

"My grandma was real big into it. She kind of went over the basics with me before she died." Score shrugged when Pixel shot him a sympathetic look. "It's cool, I'm over it. Anyway, she never walked me through the steps or anything, but I watched her enough times to figure it out. At any rate, I know how to follow instructions well enough to avoid blowing anything up. For the most part. Don't look so nervous, it was just a joke. Where's Helaine?"

Pixel opened his mouth to reply, but was interrupted by a quiet voice from the other side of the kitchen.

"Helaine has yet to show her face

And I have looked all o'er the place."

Score sighed. "Three guesses."

Pixel turned to see Oracle sitting on the adjacent counter. At the boy's disapproving expression the ever-present grin grew a touch wider, and crooked.

"If I judge by the glare I've received for my gall

I'd reckon you aren't glad to see me at all."

"You just better never pop up when I'm going to the bathroom," Score mumbled, refusing to turn. "And quit talking like that. It's annoying."

"You have the empathy of a brick," Oracle said matter-of-factly, "and something tells me you wouldn't care if I told you I don't want my skills rusting."

"Something tells me you're right."

"Where have you been?" Pixel asked, a shade more civil.

Oracle shrugged. "Here and there. Helping Shanara, mostly. With all the work she does, she needs all the help she can get. You wouldn't believe how lazy that Blink is."

"Actually," Pixel said, and let it hang.

"How can you help her?" Score asked bluntly. "I didn't think you were real."

The polite smile became more so. "True, but then, you are real, and you have a history of not helping people at all."

Pixel stifled a smile when Score whirled, outrage darkening his cheeks, and clapped a hand on his friend's shoulder before a tirade could wrestle its way out from the splutter of disjointed consonants. "I'm going to go find Helaine, okay? She should be around here somewhere."

When his friend didn't respond Pixel gave his shoulder a gentle shake. After a moment Score turned his glare to him. "I'm going to find Helaine," Pixel repeated patiently. "She's going to want to try this cake, don't you think?"

Score calmed down slightly. "Maybe," he muttered. Throwing a last dirty look at the black-clad man, he turned back to his concoction. A lump of frosting was slowly making its way down the side. "Or maybe not," he admitted, and rescued it, slipping it into his mouth. "I kind of messed up on it."

"Don't be so down on yourself. You did a great job. I think she'll love it, anyway. See you later, okay?"

"Wait." Score pulled out another strand of hair. "Have a cookie before you go," he said.

Pixel raised an eyebrow as the shape presented itself. "A zebra? And since when do they have breasts?"

"I felt like adding something unusual and they were more fun than a dick." Score pressed it firmly into his hand. "Go find our girl wonder. She's probably lurking around the dungeon someplace looking for torture devices or something."

"I'll tell her you said that." With a backward glance at Oracle Pixel walked out of the room, flicking his fingers in farewell. The door closed quietly behind him.

"Asshole," Score said.

Oracle chuckled. "Oh, please, I was only joking." He slid off the counter and walked toward him, stretching leisurely. "You shouldn't take it so seriously. If anything, I should be the one who's offended."

"Consider the extension of my middle finger a measure of how much I don't care."

"And for your information, I happen to be a great help to Shanara." Oracle reached around Score and touched the icing. "Rattling off directions for making potions is very useful to a magician who needs both hands to work."

Score was interested despite himself. "You can pick up books?"

"You think me so incompetent?"

"Yup."

"The Triad needed me to be useful," Oracle said, and looked sour. "I can strengthen my projection if need be, if only for a short period of time. Remember how I turned over the cards on Earth?"

Score did. "Yeah, well, you don't gotta go getting all testy on me. And stop picking at that frosting. The cake's done now –I don't want you messing it up." And making it worse than it already is, he continued silently, and sighed, looking around for something else to do. The cookies had been a good idea, and he did have enough flour and leftover supplies; maybe he could make a batch or two of those.

 "It must be hard for you."

Score turned, a frown already climbing to his face. Unperturbed, Oracle licked his fingertip clean.  "I just mean—that is, it must be difficult trying to celebrate a holiday that neither of your friends have the slightest clue about."

"As if you know anything about it?"

Oracle grinned at him. "I can teleport as easily as one bats a lash. You think I haven't been around?"

Score glanced at the flour, then sighed, reaching up to begin pulling out his hair. To hell with baking. "Yeah, whatever. It's fine, okay? They get that it's a holiday, and they get the point –I think—so there's nothing left to say. It's not like it's that important to me. I'm just whipping up stuff since no one else seemed to be gearing toward fixing dinner."

"You're going to end up ripping out all your hair if you keep doing that," Oracle said, and shifted his weight soundlessly. "So, did you have someone you liked back on Earth? In light of Valentine's Day and all."

Score barely blinked. "My Mom. My third grade teacher. She was a fox."

Oracle frowned slightly. "Score…"

"No, I didn't." Score transformed the first hair into a sugar cookie. It burned his hand. "Shit," he said, and dropped it.

"Neither did Pixel or Helaine, apparently," Oracle mused. He appeared to nibble his lip. "But then again, you were only twelve when you met. And none of you have developed a liking for one another, I suppose..."

"Nope."

"A shame." He sounded oddly wistful. "But I suppose there's still time. And there are others."

"Dude, why are you acting so weird? None of us care about that kind of shit. Leastwise, not anymore."

"Humor me, I'm just making conversation." Oracle looked away, however, brow furrowing. "I meant no offense."

Score finally paused, a few hairs escaping through his fingers. "It bothers you, doesn't it," he said suddenly.

Oracle actually seemed to blink. "I beg your pardon?"

Score turned his knife into a platter and let the captured hairs trickle down on top of it. "That you can't be with anybody. That you'll never have a girlfriend."

If he had expected a wounded reaction he was to be disappointed. "I hear they're difficult to keep," Oracle said breezily. "Besides, the Triad made me to be somewhat of a coward; I tend to run from those kinds of situations rather than stick around to ride them out."

"Don't I know it. I swear, you're such a bastard. You say crap like, 'Look out behind you!' or 'What a pretty purple moo-cow!' and run off when our backs are turned. You're a sneak."

"I am not a sneak."

"You are so, there's so not a better word for it."

"I am not," Oracle said firmly, "and I never once said anything like that. Ever."

"Oh, that's right." Score was definitely sneering now. He shoved the flour bag off to the side carelessly and spread the hairs out across the platter. "It'd be more like, what, 'I can't help but wonder oh how, oh how, that big splotch of purple got on that moo-cow…'?"

"Unfair," Oracle said, but he finally grinned. "Cut me some slack –I never said I was a good poet."

"Mm." Score picked up a hair and morphed it into a peanut-butter cookie in the shape of a skull. "At any rate, I didn't mean to try and run you off," he said absently, sticking a finger through the eyehole. "Seriously. Stick around for some cookies."

Oracle shook his head. "I'm needed elsewhere."

"Yeah, right."

"It's possible," he said defensively. "I could have a job. I could be late for a party. I'm a bombdiggity dancer."

"Please tell me you did not just say 'bombdiggity'."

In response Oracle launched himself across the kitchen in a spontaneous pseudo-salsa. Score burst out laughing. "What?" Oracle demanded good-naturedly. "You've never seen anyone dance funkily?"

"Well, yeah… I mean, I have, but I sure as hell never expected you to do it!" Score watched in disbelief as the man, upon performing a graceful turn, raised his wrists above his head and began swinging his hips. "Where's all this coming from? You're a total loony!"

"That's always a possibility." Before Score could protest Oracle grabbed his hand, dragging him out to the center of the floor. "But it is Valentine's Day," he continued, unruffled by Score's yelp of protest, "and I should be able to get at least one dance."

"You're nutso. Lemme go!" Score found himself struggling against a grip that was surprisingly strong. To his amazement, the fingers were warm. "Seriously, the Triad must've programmed you so your brain'd give out on holidays…"

Oracle spun him around. "Just because you can't dance doesn't mean you should take your frustrations out on me," he countered placidly.

"Can't dance?" Score was suddenly indignant. "Can't dance? You've gotta be kidding! I was the king at the middle school dances. My grades might've sucked, but I could tear up the floor. I was the only kid who could do the tango."

"Then show me."

Score took control without warning, catching the other's wrist and pulling him close, exclaiming: "Salida!" Oracle instinctively back-stepped, then slid to the side when Score swept his own foot away, drawing it toward his right. "Front step."

Oracle obeyed. Score slid his left foot adjacent to his. "Parada."

The black-clad man stumbled only slightly. "Where did you learn this?"

"My gram. Seriously, she was a whiz with like, everything, you know? Way cooler than my friends' grannies."

"Sounds delightful."

"She was." Score abruptly changed directions with an adroit spin on the ball of his foot. "And a hell of a poker player."

The evening sun trickled in through windows that just barely brushed the ceiling, sending the shadows dancing wildly over the walls. "You know," Score said thoughtfully into the silence, "you might not make a bad—aw, crap!"

Following Score's gaze, Oracle glanced over his own shoulder. The flour bag Score had shoved had begun tilting dangerously over the edge of the counter, spilling grains out onto the floor. Score tore away from Oracle and darted toward it. "No, no, no, Helaine'll kill me if I let that –Shit!"

He slipped on a splotch of frosting and went flying, slamming ungracefully into the cupboards below the counter. Jarred from its precarious position, the entire bag promptly upended itself on top of him.

Oracle stifled a smile. "Is that also a part of the tango?"

"Shut up!" White to his toes, Score spat out a foul curse and coughed up a cloud of dust. "C-can't believe this… I am not cleanin' up this crap…"

"Somebody has to." Oracle's projection flickered very slightly; he reached out a hand. "Up?"

Score swiped at his eyes, his furious scowl abruptly thinning into something far more sinister. "Somebody has to, huh? How about you?"

He blinked. "Now, hold on a second…"

"You're the one that distracted me…"

"You can hardly blame me for your clumsiness…"

"After all, your clothes can't get dirty, right?"

Seeing the sadistic gleam, Oracle hastily tried to retract his offer; too late. Score snatched his hand and yanked, sending him tumbling to the floor. "I knew it!" he crowed. "How is it you can touch things but things can't touch you?"

Oracle struggled to sit up, wondering whether or not to be peeved or amused by his humiliating position. "I can be touched, obviously," he said irritably. "We were just dancing."

"Yeah, but by what else? What other things can you feel?"

"Many things."

Score hesitated, then reached out to bat at his arm. "Like that?"

Oracle sighed, looking away. "Score…"

"Could you feel that or not?"

"Yes. Where is this going?"

 Score propped himself up on an elbow and tugged lightly at the man's hair. "How about this?"

"I can feel most physical contact if I strengthen my projection enough," Oracle said. His voice was quiet. "I'm just not always allowed to… return it, I guess."

Score lowered his hand. "No wonder, then," he said, slightly uncomfortable, "that you can't… like, get yourself a girlfriend, right? You're real, but… but you're not. The rules keep shifting on you, don't they? You never know when you're going to… you know…"

The man shrugged again. Score sat up all the way, studying the impassive face, and slowly reached up to touch his cheek. Unlike on the hands, the skin there was oddly cool. Oracle's eyes remained rooted to the floor. The projection flickered; Score suddenly found his fingers floating in the grains of light. He slowly withdrew them. "I'm sorry," he whispered.

The whimsical smile suddenly returned. "It's Valentine's Day," Oracle said, and stood briskly, "and no time to be moping. I believe you were teaching me how to dance…?"

Score climbed to his feet. Clouds of flour drifted down to the floor; he slapped at his clothes ineffectually. "You are kinda hopeless," he admitted, coughing, "though you freak dance pretty good."

"I consider myself a master of many trades."

He cautiously grasped a hold of the man's hands. To his relief, they seemed solid. "We took it pretty fast last time. We should slow it down."

"We should?"

"We should." Score began to lead, grimacing as granules shifted beneath his feet. The sun had drifted even lower, allowing gold to travel down the walls like streaks of honey. He was suddenly conscious of several things; their proximity, for one, which Oracle didn't appear to be acknowledging; the gentle pressure –how did he manage to stay solid for so long? –and how satisfying it was that Oracle continued to yield to every movement. A deep flush began working its way up his neck. "You know, if this is making you uncomfortable…" he began.

"Not at all."

"… we could stop. I mean, I don't want to force you into anything, or… or anything…"

Oracle sounded very amused. "You're not."

"Oh," he said, and suddenly found his face inclined and extremely close to his partner's. For a moment the propinquity unnerved him, and then it suddenly didn't, and he found himself feeling disappointed when the man pulled away slightly, and wondered what the hell he was wondering. "Well, I might be bothered by this."

Oracle shrugged. "Teenage boys are usually the ones most prone to feelings of insecurity," he said blandly. "If you feel you need to stop for the sake of preserving your masculinity I wouldn't be offended at all."

Score frowned. "That's so totally not the issue here. Why are you such a bastard?"

"Are you uncomfortable?"

"No," Score said, and looked sullen. "I still think you're a bastard, though."

"I was made by the finest."

The silence stretched into minutes. Scarlet crept in with the gold, painting a brilliant backdrop for their whirling silhouettes. Score swallowed, feeling brief brushes of empty air as the projection flickered once; twice. "Have you ever stayed in one place for so long?" he asked at last.

"No."

Score squeezed his eyes shut. "You're lucky."

"For not staying in one place?"

"For not being touched by things." They danced around a tired looking chair; a stub of a half-heartedly ripped tag brushed against Score's jeans as they passed by. "Or at least having the choice not to be. I'm just saying, there were times I wished I couldn't feel stuff. Like when my Dad kept going around whacking me. That hurt. Or like, when we were being attacked on Rawn. Times like those."

Oracle lifted a shoulder. "I've never felt pain, so I guess I can't really sympathize."

Score glanced upward, narrowing his eyes. It wasn't as if he could pin it to any one thing in particular, but something or things were beginning to feed to a spark of resentment; the faultless iridescence of the well-sculpted features, perhaps, or the way the eyes stood untouched by time or trials or anything worth mentioning. His chest tightened inexplicably.

When was the last time you felt something?

Something was tugging at them subtly. Score looked up again, seeing an almost imperceptible frown work its way onto the man's face. "Is that…?" he ventured.

Oracle nodded. "Spell wants me back," he said curtly.

"Why?"

They made their way past the doorway, traditional dance deteriorating into something less elaborate. "I suppose it was built in to ensure I wouldn't spend an inordinate amount of time in one place."

"Doing what? Clubbing? Having sex with fellow see-through, ready-made beings?"

"Spilling secrets."

"About what?"

Oracle shrugged. Galled by the man's indifference, Score persisted, " So it's a leash, then?"

"Yes."

Their faces had grown close again. A part of him was terrified; a part of him was terrified not to be. "You've never felt pain."

Oracle chuckled lightly, though it sounded forced. "There's never been a need."

Choice, Score's father had once told him. Prior to a beating or more likely after he'd start the lecture, tossing his son a box of band-aids. You could feel it and be afraid of it; you could feel it and ignore it; you could feel it and do something about it. It's a part of life, boy, he'd said: You can't learn to love and fight and live until you've felt it. The only decision you had to make was how you were going to deal with it.

There's never been a need.

They traversed back to the kitchen, stirring up clouds of flour. Without warning Score whirled and slammed Oracle against the counter, eliciting a startled grunt. The image flickered wildly. "You make me sick," Score gritted.

Oracle froze as the boy's tongue forced his lips apart, clutching the smooth curve of the checkered marble behind him with wavering hands. The taste of scotch and cherry frosting flooded his senses, sending him spinning into a dizzying whirlwind of conflicting sensations. Score caught the man's lower lip with his teeth and bit, making him hiss. "There," the boy whispered raggedly. His face was flushed. "How about now? Not so perfect, huh?"

Oracle ran his tongue over his lip, startled when copper flooded across his taste buds. Score withdrew with a motion so sudden it seemed violent. "Sometimes I really hate you, you know that? But for what it's worth –and I know that ain't much—Happy Valentine's Day, all right?"

Oracle shook his head. "I… I don't…" he began faintly.

A thumping sound suddenly came from downstairs. "Score!" Helaine yelled, voice muffled by stone, "I found something down in these dungeons that I think we could use. Can you come down and help us bring it up?" Another violent crash; Helaine's voice became agitated. "Pixel, I told you not to try and move that thing yet…! Here, let me do it… Score?"

Score backed away slowly, watching the man's body shudder like an image split by bands of interference. Oracle hesitated, then slowly closed his mouth again, puzzled. A moment later the projection finally cut out completely, leaving no more than a whisper of displaced air. Score stared into empty space, idly wondering why his eyes were burning. "Son of a bitch," he whispered, and smiled ruefully. "Sorry about that…"

A nudge at his mind. *Score? Are you coming?*

*Be right there,* he sent back.

As he moved to walk away he suddenly felt a gentle brush against his cheek, lighter than an exhalation. He turned his head quickly, but the only thing to meet his gaze were shadows and the faint glimmers of magic fast disappearing from the corners. On a whim Score allowed his gaze to fall to the floor. In the spilled flour there were scuffs of a single set of footprints, as if he had been dancing with a ghost. Something caught his eye and he kneeled, absently brushing the powder on his fingers off on his knee.

In the center of the floor, amid the dust and cookie crumbs, was the tiny outline of a heart.

(fin)