The Games We Play
K Hanna Korossy

"So you think you can beat me, huh?" Dean asked pleasantly as he spun the basketball in his hands. "Like all those times you won before? Oh, wait, that was me."

Sam gave him a hard smile back. "Yeah, well, I've grown a few inches since then. You stayed short."

"Hey, I'm not short." Dean pointed at Sam. "You just got freakishly tall. Too bad you didn't get the coordination to match—I could still wipe this court with you."

Sam bounced lightly on his heels. "If you wanna embarrass yourself…"

Dean's eyes narrowed. "Oh, it is so on." And he was already dodging to the left, ball slamming against the blacktop.

Sam flung himself after his brother.

As kids they'd played whatever sports they could get the equipment for: tossing abandoned tennis balls back and forth, kicking around slightly flat soccer balls, playing makeshift baseball with sturdy branches and dirty balls dug out of sewer drains. But there was usually a local Y and they often had decent basketballs to loan, so shooting baskets, playing HORSE, and eventually aggressive one-on-one games had been a constant of their childhood. And Dean had gone from letting his weaker and smaller little brother win some, to all the cutthroat competitiveness of brotherhood.

Dean plowed into his brother—who really was unfairly gigantic—as Sam leaped up to make a shot, sending Sam crashing back to the pavement. Dean slowed, giving him a worried glance when the kid didn't jump back up. "You okay?" He extended a hand.

Sam took it, pulled himself up…then popped the ball out of Dean's other hand and made another, successful run at the hoops.

Dean growled and threw himself back into the game.

The hunt had been a tough one, desiccated bodies stacking up like firewood, then Sam not responding just long enough to make his brother thoroughly anxious. They'd torched their prey without either of them getting so much as a scratch, but they'd been wired, too tense to relax when they'd returned to their room. It was as if by silent agreement that they'd changed into shorts—well, Sam had—put sneakers on—Dean—and headed down the street to the local community center. Considering it was a late February night, it wasn't a surprise they had the basketball court to themselves.

Dean hooked the ball in, then hung off the hoop a second before letting himself drop. "How many is that?"

Sam stopped, bending over to prop his hands on his thighs. "I thought you were keeping score."

"Me?" Dean wiped his sweaty face with an equally sweaty t-shirt. "Who's the geek here, huh?"

"Whatever," Sam rolled his eyes, "I think it's twenty-eleven, me."

Dean blew a raspberry. "In your dreams, Poindexter."

Sam straightened wearily. "Beer?"

"God, yes." Dean chucked the ball back toward the bin, scoring one last time—he had so won that game—then turned to lead the way back home. "Loser buys."

"So I guess drinks are on you," Sam said, following.

"You just keep telling yourself that, Sammy…"

00000

There was a pop, silence, then the humming started up again.

Dean glanced over the top of his cards. "So, how much you wanna bet the heater's gonna die before morning?"

"No bet," Sam said distractedly, shuffling his hand around. He'd always played with the same focus and technique, whether it was Go Fish or Poker, something Dean found oddly comforting. Sam pulled out two cards and laid them on the table. "Two."

Dean dealt out a pair and gave himself one, then reached for the long-neck on the table by his elbow, taking a swallow before following it up with a handful of Doritos for good measure. Everything was better with Doritos.

They were, technically, in the middle of a hunt. But they knew already they were dealing with a vengeful spirit, the question was just who, and only interviews the next day would help them figure it out. So they had a night off meanwhile, nothing to do but relax and wait and maybe hone each other's Poker-playing skills a little. Or at least that had always been Dean's excuse to their dad when John would catch them staying up late playing.

Sam eyed his pile of money speculatively, then carefully picked up two quarters to toss into the pot.

Sometimes they bet chores—laundry was a big one—or beers or first showers. But considering Dean was the one who made most of their spending money, it didn't make much sense to bet money. Besides, this wasn't that kind of game.

Dean called Sam's two quarters and raised it with one of his own.

They studied each other above their cards. Poker was about playing the other person, not the cards, and when your fellow player like you knew yourself, it made things…interesting.

Sam's nose twitched.

Dean's eyebrows rose a fraction.

Sam's eyes narrowed. He reached out…and stole one of Dean's Doritos.

"Distracting me's not gonna help you, Sammy."

"Dude, you ever get tired of carrying that ego around?"

"Not ego if it's the truth," Dean said easily. "You gonna go anytime today?"

Sam's lips thinned, but he tossed another quarter into the pot. "Call."

Dean lay down his cards. "Two pair."

Sam studied his cards with all the seriousness he gave his research. Then suddenly smiled.

Dean didn't know whether to be proud or annoyed that his little brother beat him in the game Dean had taught him. So he just broke out another pair of beers and Sam's beloved Cheetos, and shuffled the cards again.

00000

The balls broke sloppily, exactly as they were meant to.

Sam watched them careen around the table, mentally tagging each one's position even while his face reflected drunken befuddlement. Dean excelled in playing people—Poker, craps, flirting—but Sam excelled at the math of pool and darts. And Dad had always taught them to play to their strengths.

"Dude." Dean was shaking his head mournfully. "That is just sad."

"Shut up." It wasn't that much effort to sound put out. One thing they were both good at was baiting each other. "I'm playing."

"So that's what you call it…"

Sam gave him a withering look, then stepped around the table, working out the geometry. And coincidentally giving their audience a better view. There. He positioned his cue stick, wobbling as he did so, and sent the 7-ball careening into the 3.

The 3-ball rolled to a stop two inches from the corner pocket.

"Aw, didn't see that one coming," Dean clucked. "Here, let an expert show you how it's done. Move over." He nudged Sam over, cheerfully ignoring the daggers Sam was glaring at him.

Balls cracked and one hit the pocket. The three frat boys watching them cheered for Dean. The next ball didn't quite make it, however, and the congratulations turned into calls of "tough luck, man." Dean grimaced and stepped aside while Sam smirked at him, moving into place.

He almost scratched, but at the last second the red ball plopped into the pocket instead. His triumphant grin only lasted a second, however, when the white ball teetered and then followed it.

"Wow, you really suck at this," Dean whistled. Their audience cackled and whooped.

"I do not," Sam said crankily. "I'm a good shot, the table's just…fuzzy."

"'Fuzzy'?" Dean grinned at him. "Dude, you're the one who's fuzzy."

"Think he's right, man," one of the frat boys spoke up, taking a step closer. "You're baked, buddy."

"Oh, yeah?" Sam challenged. "You think you could do better?"

"In my sleep."

Sam met his brother's eyes over the head of the frat kid. "You wanna put your money where your mouth is?"

Dean downed all the beers that evening, and Sam's winnings paid for every one.

00000

They circled each other warily in the field, bare feet leaving impressions in the thick grass.

They'd sparred with each other too many years not to catch the microscopic tells that preceded a move, but they could still surprise each other. Like when Sam went lower than expected, catching Dean by the upper legs instead of the waist. Or when Dean didn't just sweep Sam's feet but actually hooked one, yanking him off balance.

They separated, breathing a little harder, and circled once more.

Sam feinted twice before throwing a punch that Dean deflected with an arm before bringing his elbow around. Sam sidestepped it, then another blow that went sailing by his ear. "Getting soft?" he puffed.

"You wish," Dean grated back, and clipped Sam's lip this time, busting it open. They matched now, Dean's nose already leaking blood from a strike Sam had gotten past him.

Sam grunted and dropped, buckling Dean's knee with a sweep but not quite taking him down. Dean redirected his fumble into a punch that whooshed the air out of Sam's lungs. He dropped back a pair of steps, hand guarding his gut, while he caught his breath.

"You giving up?" Dean growled, knowing the answer already.

Sam's expression turned bitchy and he plowed back in.

The punches and kicks were always a little pulled—they didn't really want to knock each other out or break bones, no matter how intensely they fought—but the calculations, the competition, the drive was always full blast. Especially when there was more going on than keeping each other sharp.

They couldn't have talked about this even if that would have been their way, the fears too deep, too complex, too tangled. Instead it came out in the violence and desperation and action that Winchesters had always been better at than words.

Sam flipped his brother and got him down on the ground, face inches above Dean's, in a move that reminded him of the night Dean had come looking for him in Palo Alto. Maybe that was what made the words tumble out. "You're an ass, Dean."

Dean shoved him off none-too-gently and rolled out, back up on his feet like a cat. "So you keep telling me," he wheezed.

"Dad should never have put that on you."

Dean took advantage of his distraction and grabbed Sam's arm, trying to flip him into a hold.

Sam squirmed out with more strength than agility, taking a moment to wonder at how much easier that was now that he was the taller one. From the set of Dean's mouth, Dean was thinking the same thing.

"I'm not gonna kill you so it doesn't matter, right?" Then Dean charged.

Maybe he had inches on Dean, but Sam still didn't have his brother's solid muscle. He stumbled back, trying not to lose his footing. The move was a sloppy one, however, driven by more emotion than skill; they were really too distracted to be on top of their game. Which was one of the reasons they were out there. Sam pivoted with Dean's force and flattened him, again. Then he locked his arms and knees around his brother.

"Get off me!"

Sam breathed out twice, sweat plastering his hair into his eyes, then dropped his chin in surrender. "I'm scared, Dean."

The fight drained out of Dean like someone had pulled the plug, which Sam kinda had. "I know," he murmured back. The me, too didn't need to be spoken. Nor did it escape Sam that Dean was no longer falling back on his stock, Don't worry, you've got me. Their truth was always in the unsaid.

Sam tucked up a hand between them, and Dean took it, let himself be pulled to his feet. There was a moment of silence, both of them catching their breath and studying the torn-up grass around them.

"Race you for first shower," Dean suddenly said, and took off.

Sam cursed and followed him. What else was he going to do?

00000

"Remind me how to play this again?" Dean said, cupping the die in one hand.

"Roll to start," Sam said quietly, nodding at the cube.

Dean rolled a two, then his eyes.

Sam got a three. He picked up the second die and tossed them together. Seven, one of the dies a five. "Five lets you move a piece out of Start." He did.

Dean rolled a four, two twos. "Figures," he grumbled.

"Doubles means you roll again," Sam said.

"Oh." Dean brightened. Rolled. Five and a four. He moved a piece out onto the board. "I knew I liked this game."

Sam smiled wanly and picked up the dice.

The TV was busted, not that either of them felt like watching. They still needed to replace the deck of cards that the mouse had shredded…two rooms back? The pouring rain outside meant no outdoor sports even if Sam's sore ribs would have made that possible. The dusty Parcheesi game on the bottom shelf of the TV bureau was the only entertainment Dean had been able to dig up, and considering Sam hadn't rejected it, he was considering it a win. Besides, he had some vague memories of Sammy loving Parcheesi as a kid.

Lightning crackled outside, momentarily brightening the room, and Sam's pinched face.

They rolled the dice and played in silence. Casual initial moves took up more import as the game advanced, and they began to stalk each other around the board, calculating and strategizing with each roll, more intent on knocking each other off than on making it home.

But Sam got quieter with every lost piece.

Dean started adjusting his play. Aimed for Home instead of Sam, making good single moves but letting his global strategy slide. Sam glanced up at him twice, assessing, but didn't challenge him on it.

Until, casually, "Not gonna win if you're just trying to play it safe."

Dean gave him a sideways look. "It's never safe, Sam. Sometimes the best we can do is not go at each other."

Sam's eyes were tired, deep, opaque. "You mean, change the game?"

Dean stared back. "Not the first time. Beats butting heads, man, right?"

Four months left of his deal. Last birthdays felt more like mourning than celebration: big shocker there.

"We'll figure it out," Sam vowed back, punctuating the words with a sharp nod.

Dean wondered for whose sake they were really playing.

They let chance decide the end of the game. They'd fought enough already.

The End