Playing For Keeps


A/N: Because okay, apparently I have a thing for brothers. It's been a really long time since I've been so obsessed with anything.. but seriously, this series? It's like live FMA ON CRACK. I seriously recommend not watching it unless you want your life going down the toilet.

This is set before season 4. It's not my best work ever, more like just my attempt at trying to get my head wrapped around the characters. It's actually kind of frickin' hard, I don't know if I've got it. I'm afraid I'm making Sam terribly OOC, and I hate the thought, but then again, we don't really know what happened while Dean was off in hell, do we?

And even though Dean has like what, only three or four actual lines in this piece, I'm putting him as one of the characters because seriously? He's always there, even when he's not. And because I'm starting to not make much sense, I'll just let you guys read and see for yourself. Give it a chance, I know the beginning is a little tedious...

Credits go to Kripke and Bon Jovi. Only warning is for language, because Sam has apparently adopted Dean's potty mouth.

Oh, and of course, please review!


It's all the same, only the names will change
Every day,
It seems we're wasting away

Another place,
Where the faces are so cold,
I'd drive all night just to get back home

--

"You can be okay, you know."

He tried to smile, failed. "Aren't you supposed to say that I will? The way you put it, you make it sound like it's a choice."

Bobby's eyes, gentle as they tried to be, pierced his like a fire poker.

"Maybe because it is."

--

Sometimes I sleep, sometimes it's not for days
And the people I meet
Always go their separate ways

Sometimes you tell the day
By the bottle that you drink,

And times when you're alone
When all you do is think

Cause I'm a cowboy, on a steel horse I ride,
I'm wanted
Dead or alive...


Sam Winchester was okay.

He ate at least twice a day, slept seven hours a night (or day if you wanted to get technical, because the things he hunted were usually nocturnal), finished jobs quickly and efficiently like he was born to it (which he kind of had been, he supposed). He even washed the Impala every once in a while, just enough so it didn't look in too sad a shape now that the love of its greasy black life was gone. So she – it – was doing fine too.

When he wasn't working, Sam took it easy. Usually he found himself snacking on a power bar in some grungy motel room looking up the next job on his laptop, but on occasion he'd pick up a couple of dime novels from someplace and read a little before bed, because he could now that no one threw peanut M&Ms at the back of his head if he was being too quiet or they were bored of watching Cops reruns. Soon the backseat of the Impala looked less like the floor of a bar and more like Sam's desk back at Stanford, and though Sam didn't really know how he was supposed to feel about that, he liked the mess. His mess.

It was… homey, almost.

During the long drives, Sam worked crossword puzzles in his head. It was one of those skills that sounded impressive but really wasn't – you try driving day after day with nothing to stave off the boredom and see if you don't get freaky mind powers (or extra ones, if you had them already). Because that was probably the biggest challenge to get used to now that Sam was by himself, the boredom. There wasn't much to keep one occupied on the road after all, especially since Sam had at some point decided that talking to people who weren't there wasn't exactly playing it cool, and what would his brother say if he came back and saw little Sasquatch had gone and lost it?

...Probably something like "Fucking shit on a stick, Sammy, what did I warn you about watching too much Lifetime?"

Of course, that had been back when Sam had actually believed there was a chance of his brother coming back. Nowadays, with no research on crossroads to work on, no one to be there and see the edges fraying, Sam didn't really have a reason for hiding anything anymore. It didn't matter what the people he came across thought - Sam was never really the social type, had never been able to be buddy-buddy with people he knew he was going to leave, not like... well, some people.

But the habit had stuck, so no loony Sammy for now.

…Just the same old, Dean-less Sam.

And he really was okay with that. Should be more than okay, even, if you thought about it – at long last, Sam could have his own schedule and priorities and desires with no one else's feelings to consider, no one else's conscience to bow to, no one else's responsibilities to adopt.

For the first time since Stanford, Sam had complete and utter freedom.

...It kind of sucked that he couldn't come up with a single thing to do with it.

It wasn't like he had dreams of Dean dying, suffering, calling out Sam's name in pain and desperation and the same blasted hope every night. And it's not like every time Sam slept in a grubby motel room he'd wake up groaning for someone to turn off the stupid blaring AC/DC alarm, before suddenly having to remember that oh yeah, there wasn't anyone in the other bed anymore, not to give him five extra minutes and not to retort back that 'Back in Black' is the best damn thing to wake up to in the morning, you friggin' Spice Girls closet fan, and anyway it's your damn cell phone so don't blame me for your pansy-ass sentimentality.

And it wasn't like he remembered just whose car it was every time he stepped into the Impala, either. Maybe once or twice at first, all right, but two days after leaving Bobby's Sam bought himself an iPod, which was like an instant fix-it to… whatever.

The iPod meant freedom in a way that going to college by himself had never been. For his part, Sam was pretty sure it was the best unearned money he'd ever spent. There was this… appeal, he supposed he could call it, to having nothing but gas in the tank, an open stretch of road and his favorite music playing full volume until his ears begged to bleed. Music simply and mercifully filled up the empty spaces, swept him up and carried him away to a place where there were no thoughts and no vacancies, no one who didn't matter, and no one who did.

…He could see why someone might like that sort of thing.

Best of all, though, the iPod meant shuffle, and thank God for that little feature, because Sam didn't have to ever again listen to the same old guitar riffs repeated over and over until he wanted to hurl (and that was a good thing, needless to say). All his dad's antiquated rock cassette collection – except for the one still inside the tape player, Sam kept forgetting to take it out – was carefully shoved behind the arsenal in the trunk, never to see the sun again unless Sam developed a mysterious craving for mullet rock someday. Which, let's face it, wasn't very likely, because Sam was one of those crazy fuckers who liked actual musicality in his music. A little classic Beatles, a little classic Mozart, the odd Ben Folds or Radiohead song here and there, and Sam was good.

Most importantly, however, the intrusion of modern 21st century technology on the Impala was definitive. Final. The Impala was his now, every inch of glossy black steel and cushy leather interior. There was no going back anymore, and thank goodness.

…And if the back seat looked a little empty now that half the clutter was relocated to Bobby's basement, well, so what. Sam liked his space.

--

Once, while rummaging for his cell phone in the passenger seat, he accidentally hits the play button on the tape player with his elbow. The Impala's speakers make him jump and hit his head on the ceiling as they loudly and defiantly endeavor to blast off his ears, and Sam nearly has a heart attack right then and there.

It's not five seconds later that the cassette inside the player is thrown out the window, dying a violent death under the wheel of a Ford Fusion.

…Sam just wasn't a Bon Jovi fan.


"Holy crap, man, warn someone before you have one of your ESP things on the road!"

"It's not like I schedule these visions, Dean!"

"And you wonder why I don't let you drive. You barely manage taking shotgun."

"At least I have a legitimate driver's license, unlike some people I could mention."

"Hey, I have one too, I'll have you know."

"Yeah? And since when is your name Herbert McPherson?"

"Since yours was Farty McFartypants, so I guess it's been a while."

"Oh, real witty, Herbert. You planning on finishing fourth grade anytime soon?"

"I dunno, Sam, I'm having trouble spelling 'Sam is a gay motherfucker who cries his way through sex and watches Oxygen because it makes him feel sad.'"

"You know you're an ass, don't you?"

"Aw, honey... you know I love it when you try talking dirty to me."

Laughter. "Dude, you're so gross."

Cocky grin."You love me, admit it."

"Never, you jerk."

"Bitch."


Sam is more than okay, actually.

He thinks it's funny, really, that somehow now that he works solo he doesn't get hurt as badly or frequently like he used to. And before you ask, it's not that he's being more cautious or paranoid than usual, least so far as he can tell – he is fine like always. It makes him wonder sometimes, though, just how reckless and dumb he and his brother had been whenever the other was involved.

(Sam never stops to think that maybe it isn't that he doesn't get hurt so much as he just doesn't – can't afford to – notice when he is. That maybe it isn't so much that he doesn't need to patch himself up, and more that he just doesn't.)

He doesn't wonder often, however, because there really isn't any point. The time since Stanford has grounded Sam in a way his crazy childhood never did, taught him to practically bleed efficiency from his veins. He's learned (the hard way, he thinks bitterly, because he is a Winchester after all) to no longer bother dwelling on things out of his control, things he cannot treat or help. It's a waste of energy fighting the inevitable – like sure, Sam is pretty flexible for a guy, but if you thought he could bandage his own back after an empusa tried to tear his spine out, you had another thing coming – especially when there is no one to do it with (for) him.

But Sam isn't quitting hunting and he isn't getting another partner (thanks but no thanks, Bobby). So yeah, maybe it is harder to stop without someone telling him to, maybe it is harder to pretend when there is no one to pretend (or quirk their eyebrow as if to say who-do-you-think-you're-fooling-I-invented-this-suffering-in-silence-shit-for-chrissakes) for. And okay, sometimes Sam just can't help passing out before he can make it to a motel.

But Sam usually remembers the important things, like making sure to park somewhere out of the way and covering the seat so he doesn't leave bloodstains on the leather, and so far he's always woken up fine – or not dead, at least.

Which is something, right?

…He sleeps better in the car anyway.

--

He doesn't wonder if this is what it was like for his brother when Sam had been away at college, if Dean had also gone through the same long nights, if he'd also received scars from wounds Sam hadn't been there to treat, if he had ever picked up his cell wanting to call someone, anyone, just to hear another person's voice. Whether he'd ever lingered over Sam's entry in his phone, wanting to call but knowing no one would pick up.

…There's no point.


Sam Winchester is completely and utterly okay, but no one else seems to get it.

Ellen, for example, pins him with those all-knowing I've-been-there eyes that kind of make him want to poke them out with a pencil, because fuck if she knows and fuck if she's been there. Her vocabulary seems to have slimmed down these days into meaningless sorry's and 'I'm here's and the occasional 'lemme make you some coffee', and fuck, her sharp voice almost gentles whenever he comes by. Always with the questions, are you all right and how's it holding up, as if he was some vase about to fall over and shatter into a million pieces.

It's all the more irritating because he knows that if he acted like everyone expected him to, all morose self-pity and gloomy emo silence, Ellen would have been blunt and merciless and probably would have slapped him around a bit, because she's a tough old broad (language, Dean!) and that's just how she is. So it escapes him why she acts like something out of a hallmark commercial when he smiles and plays pool and it's so obvious he's all right she's an idiot for ignoring it. It's not very logical - why fix something that isn't broken? - and he's always considered Ellen to be a sensible person. Still, Sam wouldn't have minded it much (he knows from Psych 101 that everyone deals differently with things) but it makes it pretty damn difficult to get answers about hunts when she keeps asking him if he needs more sugar in his latte.

He might have appreciated it anyway (it's the thought that counts), except Sam doesn't need understanding or sympathy or another teaspoon of sweetener. When he asks about whether ghouls were immune to rock-salt, or the address of that voodoo expert in New Orleans or the number of the hunter who said he'd killed Ana McIntyre's spirit in Maine (because damn if he hadn't been backed into a corner by the same ugly hag in Auburn), it's because he needs to know so he can shoot some evil sons of bitches in the FACE, not because he's pretending or meaning something else or, for heavens' sake, just wanting to talk - like seriously, lady, just give me what I need to know and stop fucking asking me if I'm all right, because if I've told you once I've told you a hundred times: I'm fine.

And then there's Bobby, who's a different can of worms altogether.

Sam can readily admit (to himself) that he loves the guy, kind of can't help but admire how he knows so much so well and yet still manages to keep his priorities straight (father figure, anyone?). But that doesn't stop the man from being an annoying, overbearing nag. The way Bobby looked at him that first morning after – after, like Sam's smiles and how-are-you's were fake, the way that gaze just dove into his head and seemed to call him out on how it was all fucking betrayal, a fucking lie – when he was just trying to cope, goddamnit, wasn't it obvious he was coping?

And for a man who had been practically a hermit for the past couple of who-knows-how-many decades, Bobby didn't seem to know how to shut up. Phone call after phone call, at first where the fuck you think you're going dumbass? then come on kid, pick up the damn phone, later the drunken actin' like a bitchy teenage drama queen, y'think you the only one who l-lost someone? and finally, sadly, he wouldn't have wanted this for you, Sammy boy, and you should know it better than anyone.

After a short internal debate, Sam returns the last call, because he supposes that kind of irritating persistence should be rewarded. Or something.

--

He hits the 'send' button, and after an initial, meaningless greeting that doesn't fool either of them, lets Bobby have his say. It's a pretty long say, but Sam is patient, and only when the man's lecture finally tapers off does he speak again.

"Don't call me Sammy," he says, and hangs up the phone.


After two months of being perfectly okay, Sam knocks on the door of a dingy apartment in East Brooklyn and asks the girl opening it teach him everything she knows, because being okay is... okay, but not always okay enough.

Surprisingly enough, the demon hesitates. "Are you sure?" she asks, not biting her lip, but looking like she would have liked to.

He doesn't know what Ruby sees when she looks at him, and he doesn't really care, either. But her eyes – brown this time, like chocolate – are almost timid, furtively shooting glances everywhere but at his face, and he can't help but wonder what caused the change. It's kind of infuriating to be honest, because by all rights she should be jumping up and down like a little girl, gloating gleefully about how it's about time, pretty boy, finally I have you all. To. My. Self.

He can't help feeling a little pang of hatred. If even a demon treats him like damaged goods –

"I didn't track you here to say hello," Sam tells her, eyes cold and flat.

Act like the goddamn bitch you are already.

She flinches, tries to cover it up. "Always the pleasantries with you Winchesters, isn't it, Sam?"

He doesn't care for this. "I came like you wanted, Ruby. Let's skip the bull."

Ruby finally meets his gaze, peers into him curiously. After a moment, her eyes narrow. "You do realize that acting like an asshole won't bring the asshole back, don't you?"

It only registers with him that his hand has punched through the wall after the sound makes it to his ears.

He feels calm though. He feels okay.

"Ruby," he says.

She ignores his warning. "He wouldn't have liked this, you know," she replies back, either casually or cautiously, he can't tell which. "Just saying."

"Ruby," Sam repeats. There's something different in his voice this time, but he's not paying attention.

She doesn't look scared, but she doesn't look too happy, either. Ruby holds her hands up as if in surrender (except Ruby never surrenders, just retreats and waits to strike again), and rolls her eyes. "All right, all right. Whatever you want."

She moves to the side, allowing him to come in. Sam accepts the invitation and walks inside, ignoring everything but what's straight ahead.

Because that is who he has to be now.

Before she closes the door behind him, though, the demon asks him one last time, gives him one last chance to back out. "…Because you do want this, don't you? You're not going to regret it later?"

Sam isn't sure why she's doing this. It isn't like Ruby to care, to give Sam the chance to run when he'd willingly stepped into her web after more than a year of defiance and not until you save my brother.

Maybe two months ago he would have asked. But that was two months ago.

Sam closes his eyes for a moment, opens them. Bon Jovi sings in the back of his head, soft and quiet as a funeral dirge, and only most of him wishes it would stop.

And I walk these streets,
A loaded six string on my back,
I play for keeps –

It's the wrong answer to the wrong question, but Sam says it anyway.

"I'll be okay."

It's his choice.

– 'cause I might not make it back.