They are walking toward the police station, three streets away. It’s a bright sunny day on the main drag, people are walking and talking cheerily, kids are riding their bikes in the median, Dean’s coffee is gone and there are four dead people in the morgue down the block. It’s just another Friday morning in Pleasantville, USA.
“Look. All I’m saying is there has to be a better way than pulling missing person’s profiles the second we get a tweet from Hellraiser,” Sam observes.
Sam’s hands used to live in his pockets, but now they live around Dean’s neck. No one around them seems to notice, though.
Women are chatting happily. Two exit a store down the street with large handled brown bags and perkiness to their step. They’re not even especially hot, so Dean’s not sure why he’s noticing.
One of them bumps elbows with him, but he shakes it off and talks at the dust on the sidewalk, letting the facts gesture with his hands. “We get coordinates from our demon overlord, we find the vics, we find Wolfman, we find Wolfman’s deadbeat dad. You got any better ideas?”
“It just seems like there should be another way,” Sam wrinkles his nose, “something more… efficient.”
“Man, I'm doing the best I can. If this is the only way we know about, then it’s the only way. Nobody is going to hand us an Easy button for getting your soul back. I wish it was different, believe me.”
Sam's mouth opens to respond and Dean can feel it washing down the back of his neck like cold water before the words even have a chance to spill out. There’s no getting out of this conversation unless he walks faster or changes the subject and he can’t do either but all at once his body is turning on its own and he’s walking into the store the two ladies walked out from.
“Dean,” Sam bites out, “What are you – Dean, that’s not the –"
Is that patchouli? The store is immaculate and nearly empty except for three people, two women and a man, having an animated conversation in the back of the store.
Sam grabs his elbow and pulls. “Dean, what the hell are you doing? We’re kinda on the clock, here.”
He wordlessly shrugs the hand off and leans forward to listen.
One of the ladies is not a little overexcited, her voice reaching levels that only dogs can hear. “Weren’t you just saying you wanted some new boots, Debbie? Look at these! These look exactly like what you said you wanted!”
“Oh my god, they are!” The other woman stares down at them and hands her purse to her friend so she can pull them on. She stands there transfixed, “Oh, Margaret, they’re just heavenly.”
“You have to get them. They’re simply dreamy.”
The man, in happy sunshine colored traditional African garb, seems quite pleased with himself. His intertwined fingers bounce against his chest as he smiles at them, “Yes, you must take them with you.”
The woman is beaming. “Oh, Tanner, you are certainly the best there is. I will wear them with pleasure. I don’t think they’re ever coming off,” and the two ladies laugh delightedly, “Thank you.”
His smile is genuine enough as he touches their elbows and guides them out of the store. “You are most welcome, Bonnie, and I will tell Nancy that you have said hello. Miss Margaret, enjoy the dress.”
The one who must have been Margaret is smiling, too. “She should leave you in charge more often, Tanner. You are too generous.”
“Thank you very much,” the man is ushering them past with a soft smile on his face and he... flickers. He could swear the dude just whole body flickered. He blinks and turns to look again, but nothing odd happens when the guy hits the sunlight. He looks at Sam.
Sam's face is squinting, transfixed and comes slightly unhinged with confusion. Finally, he tilts his chin toward the register on the counter. “Think Nancy might appreciate a little help figuring out how her merchandise grew legs?”
That doesn't account for what's possibly going on here. Seriously, Sam's brain needs a vacation. “Yeah, or maybe they already paid.”
Sam sighs and shakes his head. “No, they didn’t. Hey, can we just—"
Dean elbows him. “Dude. Chill. I’m thinking.”
“I can’t ‘chill’, Dean, I don’t even know what that means right now,” Sam whispers as his eyes momentarily shift toward the three of them in the doorway and come to rest on Dean again. “If we’re not gonna blow the whistle on Shaft over there, then what are we doing here?”
Dean gets as far as opening his mouth to reply when he sees the man reentering the shop behind Sam.
“Now, gentlemen, what can I get for you?” He ambles over to a pile of dress shirts sitting atop a display of belts and begins to sort them. “What do you need?”
Dean stares into the middle distance. Sam gapes for a quarter of a second and then points at the door with a small grimace. “I need to go.”
Tanner nods solemnly into the pile and holds up a shirt to fold. “That, you must do.”
Sam glances reproachfully at Dean before he walks out, letting the door slam behind him. The tiny bell over it jingles itself nearly to death.
The nervous laugh on Dean’s face lasts long enough for him to reach into his coat for his wallet. He suddenly really wants a belt. “Sorry about that. He, uh, he’s not so good with people lately.”
“Your money is no good here,” Tanner replies softly and crosses one shirt sleeve over the other before folding it into thirds.
It’s so matter of fact that Dean can’t help but think that he’s being told to leave. He nods shortly. “Okay, if you say so.” He’s halfway to the shop's door when he hears the man clear his throat, like Dean forgot something.
“I asked you before: what can I get you?”
A sideways view around the tiny shop and back to the man in the Rainbow Brite outfit reveals what he is suspecting: there are no security cameras or alarms of any kind. He looks at the door and back at Tanner. Hell with it. He retraces his steps. “Excuse me, but who owns this place?”
“Who do you work for?”
Tanner considers that for a second as he picks up the neatly folded stack and places them on display. When he looks at Dean, it’s with a deadly serious expression. “I work for The Man.”
“The who?” Dean suddenly notices that none of the shirts have sale tags. He looks at the belts. None of them have tags either. Nothing has a price anywhere.
The guy's eyes seem to haunt Dean’s as he lets his attention wander from rack to table to counter before returning the gaze. It should feel suspicious, but it doesn't.
Tanner is holding out a black hand-tooled belt. “You should have been in here yesterday, when I was a middle-aged woman from Canterbury.” And he winks.
Dean’s jaw got stuck hallway open at some point. He shuts it with a click and accepts the belt, partly because he isn’t sure that he can reject it and partly because… well, if he’s looking for something tangible to examine about this weirdo, he can’t explain to himself how a strip of leather suddenly explains just what the hell is going on. He turns it over and over again and gets lost in admiring the craftsmanship. “It’s good work.”
“It should be. It is for you.”
Dean looks up without lifting his head.
Tanner bows slightly. “I try to make what people think they want. Sometimes once they see it, they decide they’d rather have something else altogether. Joseph never wore that Technicolor dream coat.” He chuckles softly and his expression is set in a way that says that he’s not talking about belts or coats.
Something twists deep inside Dean. He swallows hard against it and stares and the next thing he knows, he’s cussing in front of – God?
A pair of dark eyes twinkle. “That does seem to be the case, doesn’t it?”
Dean knows that his mind is miles behind the rest of his face and there isn't a damned thing he can do about it. “You’re living in a... ...a clothing store?”
A hand extends over the shelves in explanation. “Well as you can see, I was creating the fabric of the universe and I had a little left over.”
Dean nods, but it doesn't help him feel any less confused. “You could be out there, helping people, fixing this mess ...and instead you're leaving it to screw ups like me? If you don’t mind my asking... just what the hell do you think you're doing?”
He holds up a finger. “No, I do not mind you asking. To be honest, it’s an easy answer to give.” Then he walks away, disappearing behind a curtain.
Dean fakes a whistle as he waits and raps on the glass countertop. Here he is, standing in a clothing store while half of his brother is at a police station looking up missing persons profiles, holding a belt, tapping his fingers while he waits for God to come back and explain himself… and, if he was anyone else, this would seem particularly odd.
A little old Chinese woman comes out holding a broom and starts sweeping.
She doesn't look like a Nancy or a middle-aged woman from England somewhere. He watches her for a few minutes and then loses interest, leaning sideways a bit toward the curtained partition. Maybe he's been stood up, like an unwanted date.
“Ma’am, you didn’t see anyone else back there, did you? I was kinda waiting for someone to—"
She stops mid-motion and looks at him, tilting her head slightly to one side, nodding slowly.
“He said his name was Tanner. Do you know him? Do you know when he’ll be back, I mean, if, he’ll be back?”
She’s still smiling and nodding and he wonders if she speaks English at all. “Comprende? Do you know where he is?”
More smiles and nods, but the head tilt is now headed the other way.
It’s like the friggin’ United Nations in here. “Hey listen, Lady Chang, thanks for your help, but I’m kinda in a hurry. See, I’ve got other business about my brother that I need to get back to and uh, I’d appreciate it if you could just tell him—" and he suddenly has no idea what to say. How do you leave a message for someone who wouldn’t even stay and talk to you?
“What would you like to tell him?”
She leans hard against the broom handle, bristles cracking and bending under her small weight. “It’s been a long day, son and I needed a change. Now, about your brother, you were saying?”
“Right. You... changed." This should be easier the second time around, but it isn't. It still doesn't make any sense. Then again, when does it ever? "Wait a minute. Do you even get tired?”
She is pushing the broom in small circles around each table, gathering dust that Dean can’t see. “I didn’t change for me, boy, I changed for you. If no one is listening, it’s easier for you to talk, isn’t it?”
He watches her sweep. “Never thought about it.”
She says nothing in return. Her motions are slow and a little clumsy. She rounds the edge of each table, making small piles and taking a new direction. It’s the most important job in the universe right now, sweeping the floor of this shop.
Dean leans against the counter and fidgets with the leather and the buckle. “I think you know what Sam did. How he did it. I think it was the hardest thing he ever had to do and to be honest I don’t know that I could have done it. I mean, what he did... even if it would save the whole world.”
“Have you told him that?” she responds absently.
Dean’s face grows dark and he presses his lips together. Sam’s not here to tell. “No.”
She turns her back and picks a speck off a table. “You want to know how he’s walking around. With you. Living without a soul.”
“That would be… yes.” Finally, a literal explanation.
She smiles down at the floor. “And you call Sam the curious one. Sorry, kid. Some things, science doesn’t measure or try to explain.”
His head falls back, trying to reconcile it. “So... are you saying that Sam wished for it?”
He can't tell if she is shaking her head no or if it's just shuffling in time with the rest of her. She bends down and sweeps into a pan. “I’m saying that Sam cannot be where you are not.”
“Simple I know. But it’s how you’re made.” She says it matter-of-factly as she bends again over another invisible pile.
“So if I’d said yes, we’d both be down there... in the Devil’s cage.”
When she stands up again, the bin is empty. "You wouldn't exist anymore. Either of you." She walks the broom back to its place against the wall and picks up a rag. "Even if you never find what you're looking for, now you at least know that." She wanders the same circles, bending down to wipe at the floor.
“But what do we have to do? You know, to get his soul back? He didn’t just end our chances for your help -- walking out like that --right?”
“There is no double jeopardy where I come from, Dean. What I told him was that he should do what he needs most.”
“Yeah, but what he needed most was to get away from you.”
“Oh.... No. It wasn't that. What your brother needs most of all is escape. I think you and I both know that’s the case, no matter what part of him happens to walk in here. That’s where his mind is, and so the rest of him.”
This is just... crazy. His hands are flinging the belt in a circle before he realizes that he’s frustrated. “Call me dense, but what does he have to escape from now that he's with me? I'm just trying to get him back in one piece.”
“Nevertheless, escape is what he truly wants, and the question that Sam wants to ask you is--"
The bell on the shop door rings behind them. “Dean, I found it. Let’s shake some dust.”
"--'Will you give it to me?'”
Sam freezes in the doorway like he just walked in on something shady. His eyes pan from an old Chinese woman bent over awkwardly, to Dean, to Dean's hands, and does a double-take. “What are you doing with that belt?”