Sammy lets out a yell, shocked and aggrieved, as John jerks him back from the two-bar electric heater. It does nothing for the headache already blooming behind John's eyes, courtesy of too little sleep and too many hours poring over the dense print of ancient books.
"Damnit, Dean, I asked you to watch your brother."
Dean's already grabbing onto Sam, half-comforting, half-restraining. "He was playing with his truck." Wide green eyes stare up at John, and he feels a sudden sharp longing for Mary. She'd spent hours amusing Dean at Sammy's age, he remembers; he'd come home from work to find Mary more exhausted than he was.
"Aw, hell." John reaches out and gently scruffs Dean's hair. "We gotta find you something better to do."
He casts around helplessly: apart from Sammy's abandoned truck and the ratty teddy bear that goes everywhere with him, there's not much in the way of playthings. Most of their gear is still packed up in the trunk: no time to unload the complex arrangement of boxes and bags, and no space in this tiny motel room if they did. John's eyes fall on a deck of cards, already greasy and dog-eared from games of barroom poker. But Sammy's too little to play card games.
Sam's lip wobbles again, the unmistakable precursor to a full-on crying jag, and if they're kicked out of this motel it's another 50 miles in the snow before they reach another one.
"52 card pick-up!" John announces hastily. He scoops Sam up off the floor and plops him safely on the bed. "When I shout 'go', I'm gonna drop the cards, and you two - " he gestures from Dean to Sam " - have to pick 'em up as fast as you can. Whoever picks up the most wins."
John holds the cards up high, and Sam giggles as he lets them flutter down over the bed. There's nothing the kid loves more than making a mess: he drops as many cards as he picks up, scattering them across the bedspread.
Nevertheless, when Dean counts the two piles up, it's Sammy who has the most.
The phone rings, a sharp squeal that makes them all jump. Dean watches as Jim crosses the kitchen to pick it up. John was due back a day ago, and Lord knows Jim is happy to take the boys any time, but he's not their father. Sam started asking at bedtime the night before last what time John would be back, and he hasn't let up since. Dean never asks, but his eyes stay on Jim while he answers the phone.
Jim gives a tiny shake of his head - it's a parishioner calling to ask about the arrangements for Easter - and Dean's shoulders slump a little.
Sam comes barreling into the room just as Jim hangs up, yelling "Is it -?"
"Not yet," Dean interrupts. "Dad'll be back soon, Sammy."
Sam opens his mouth to say something else, and Jim takes pity on Dean. "How's about we pass the time?" Sam is notoriously difficult to distract, but more than a decade as a pastor in a small town has taught Jim a thing or two about the way kids' minds work. "I figure you boys are old enough now to learn to play poker."
Sam's eyes light up. "For money?"
"Have you got money to lose?" Jim teases.
Two hours later Sam's up three games to Dean's two when they hear the growl of an engine outside.
"Dad!" Dean says, and both boys are up and out of their seats, cards forgotten.
Sammy runs ahead, not waiting to see whether Dean's with him.
Jim figures he doesn't need to.
"Huh?" Bill starts, jerked out of a half sleep. The car shudders, engine laboring as they climb the hill, and Bill wishes - not for the first time - for his own sturdy truck. John Winchester doesn't look much better than his car, gray and exhausted. The guy clearly hasn't slept a full night in weeks.
"You and Ellen. You're lucky to have her."
"Yeah." Bill thinks of the argument he had with his wife right before he stepped out of the door. Just because someone needs to do it, doesn't mean it's gotta be you. "Yeah, I am. Still, at least you've got your boys."
"I know. I just - " John breaks off, and Bill can fill in the gaps for himself. I just miss Mary.
In the rear-view mirror, Bill catches sight of Dean producing a playing card from his front pocket with a flourish. "Is that your card?"
"It is!" Sam sounds amazed, looking at his big brother like he just produced a bar of gold instead of a creased and greasy playing card. Dean grins in triumph.
"At least they've got each other," Bill observes under his breath. He doesn't think John hears.
You're two games up, three beers down, and feeling pretty okay with the world. Playing college kids is always easy money, and these two are no exception. The tall, gangly kid seems like it's his first time out, way too many tells and no sense of how to play a hand. The shorter, older one would be better, except that he's too cocky for his own good. Not too cocky for yours, though.
"Another hand?" The shorter one looks enthusiastic, eyes bright with more beers than he probably knows how to handle. "Let's raise the stakes, give us a chance to earn our money back."
"Sure," you shrug, trying not to show your enthusiasm. Today was payday, and it's looking like you could easily double your check.
Except their luck seems to turn in the next few hands, and suddenly the kid's cocky bets are turning round to bite you on the ass. By the time the night finishes they've won back all the money they lost and then some.
"Aces high," says the gangly kid, laying his cards out, and it's not the best hand he could have had, but it's plenty good enough.
The short guy lets out a laugh, claps him on the shoulder. "We'll make a poker player of you yet, Sammy."
They gather up their winnings, grinning and jostling one another, and you're suddenly remembering that your rent check is due this week.
"Thanks for the game." The tall guy holds out his hand.
You've always hated a sore loser. "Thanks." You shake his hand.
The other guy peels off a stack of notes from the pile in his hand. "Buy yourself a drink on us." The amount he slaps down on the table will buy a lot more than a drink, even if you are ending the night considerably poorer than you started it.
"Thanks," you say again, and it's more than just a courtesy this time.
The two guys grin and saunter out of the bar, shoulders pressed up close together, and you're suddenly not the slightest bit confused as to how they managed to play you. You'd be willing to bet everything you have left that they know every one of each other's tells.
The boys show up in the middle of the night, looking like they've been riding the raggedy edge for weeks. There's a long scratch along Sam's forearm, and a bruise fading on Dean's cheekbone.
"Bible belt," Dean supplies when he sees Bobby looking, and Bobby nods without knowing precisely what it is he's supposed to understand.
The boys head straight upstairs, the sound of their boots weary on the stairs. When Bobby passes their room later, Sam's arm is flung out across the space between the beds, and he's holding fast to Dean's wrist.
The next day, Bobby suggests poker and pretends to think that the way Sam is constantly glancing towards his brother is just part of their game play. Maybe Dean even believes it, but Bobby hasn't forgotten the months when Dean was gone.
Time was, Sam never even glanced at the space where his brother should be. But that was when he was sure that Dean would be filling it.
"And now I burn the card?" Castiel asks. "It seems wasteful. Not to mention risky."
Dean lets out a bark of laughter and Sam's mouth twitches. "No, no, you don't set it on fire. You just discard it without looking at it."
"That also seems wasteful," Castiel observes, mostly out of perversity. "What if it's the card I need?"
"That's kind of the point." Sam's outright grinning now, Castiel is pleased to see. "Look. we don't have to keep playing. We could get some sleep."
"No," Castiel says, too quickly. "So, I discard the card. Then what?"
They keep on playing. After a while Dean asks, "Cas, do you dream?"
"Yes." Castiel keeps his eyes on the cards. "I do now."
"Yeah." Dean shifts just a little closer to Sam, like he doesn't even know he's doing it. "Me too."
Dean's fingers are cold, digging into Sam's wrist like they might burn a mark. Sam wishes they could.
Dean's breathing hard, puffing out smoke signals into the cold air. Sam makes himself wait, focusing on the fresh bite of snow in the air, the clouds gathering overhead, the stretch of the sky in this world that's still improbably standing.
"Sam," Dean says, and stops. He's still holding tight to Sam's wrist, and everything slots into place around them.
Sam pulls his brother in close. For the first time in a long time, there's no doubt in his mind, just the giddy sense of triumph you get when you're holding a winning hand and the pot is full. "You never listen."
He wraps his fingers gently around Dean's jaw, tilting his face up to kiss, and keeps holding on.