Gods are real. They exist. They walk among us, and have done so forever. For as long as time has existed. Powerful, inhuman, alien. Zeus and Odin and Horus, Nanabozho and Sedna, Raven and Raijin, and all of their children are real: the shifters, the magic-users, the half-beings and spirits. They are real. They have always been real.
They walk among us.
When Dean Winchester is born, the ground beneath the hospital doesn’t quake. There are no flashes of lightning, no unearthly shrieks from the Otherbound realms, and there are most certainly no appearances from the Muses, those insufferably nosy beings, in order to foretell his greatness, or, inversely, his utter uselessness. He is not ripped from the womb of his mother and devoured by a jealous father (in fact, John and Mary are quite happy with each other, and are ever the envy of Zeus and Hera), and he isn’t born fully clothed in shining bronze armor, or with the head of an animal (unfortunately common, at the time).
Dean Winchester is a healthy, happy, cooing baby boy, and his parents have never been more terrified in their lives.
“He isn’t summoning any lightning,” John notes, and Mary gives him a look.
“I would hope not,” she says archly. “Lightning isn’t our style.”
“Still, he should be summoning something.”
“Maybe he isn’t meant to summon anything. Maybe he’s one of those lesser gods. Like…oh, like Dionysus.”
“I wouldn’t call him lesser.”
“He’s no Thor, that’s for sure.”
Mary wearily pulls down the shoulder of her hospital gown, and then holds her firstborn to her breast. She read in some human self-help book that nursing directly after birth is one of the single greatest things a mother can do to bond with her child. She isn’t sure if it applies to supernatural creatures in precisely the same way, but she’s willing to try anything. She and John have been trying to conceive for so long…Dean, at this point, is a miracle that neither of them fully understand, but nor are they going to refuse him.
“Don’t worry about him,” she says, humming softly when the tiny mouth snuffles against her breast. “Our little Dean. He’ll grow to be a fine god. You know, Raven’s child didn’t start manifesting until she hit puberty.”
“I remember that. Turned into a bird at her thirteenth birthday party.”
“Mm. Dean will be the same way, you’ll see. Not all gods have to be flashy, fire-stealing types. Sometimes they’re more subtle.”
John doesn’t say anything else, but Mary can feel him worrying. John has always been the type to worry, always been the type to be overprotective. Mary isn’t concerned. Her boy will grow up healthy and strong, and when he’s ready he’ll wow them with some feat of extraordinary strength, or maybe he’ll save a human from a burning house without the flames ever touching his skin. They just have to wait and see.
The old gods take their names from humans. Terpsichore is Terpsichore because the humans deemed her so, and she carries the name with a certain amount of pride.
We are the old gods, they say to themselves. We are tradition. We have pride in ourselves as deities. We follow the ways that our mothers and fathers followed, because there has never been any other way, because we are the old gods. There is no change.
The new gods give themselves their own names, and damn the humans that they live amongst. Why should humans determine what you are called? They take their names from the annals of existence. They are the gods Eli, and Adam, and Adalwolf. They are John and Mary, and they are Jo and Ellen. They are not confined, nor are they limited by a handful of letters that humans have thrust upon them.
They are not defined by their names – they exist and are powerful in spite of them.
“Have you heard about the new Winchester boy,” Deer-Woman says, and she strokes her fingers over the soft pelt thrown over her shoulders, and she scoffs. “Born without anything! No fur or scales, no power.”
“Hush, mammal,” Fence-Lizard chides. “There is a time and a place for scorn, and newborns deserve none of your ire.”
“He’s not newborn any longer. Almost a year.”
“That changes nothing.”
Deer-Woman lapses into sullen silence, perking up only when one of the new gods passes her. “Harvelle! Ellen Harvelle!”
The woman (goddess) in question is young and blonde and beautiful. She chooses not to walk beside her husband, though they are equal in power. She is asserting her femininity. Deer-Woman does not see the point – goddesses are creatures of fertility and nurturing, and gods are destruction and creation, light and darkness, the elements. Confusing the two brings nothing but trouble.
“Yes?” Even her voice is full of strength. Deer-Woman ignores it.
“Have you heard about the Winchester boy? No power! Can you imagine? If I had a powerless child! I think I would just die, how awful.”
Ellen closes her eyes; when she opens them again they are focused, somehow, like sunlight through a glass. She fixes this unerring gaze on Deer-Woman and says, “At least they have a child.”
Her hand strays to her flat stomach, and Deer-Woman falls quiet again. This time, her silence is ashamed.
“Apologies, for my companion,” Fence-Lizard says softly. “She is only a mammal. Our prayers of fertility go with you.”
Ellen does not take the “mammal” comment to heart – it is not in recognition of species, when the reptile-gods use it, but rather a state of mind. Deer-Woman is gossipy and quick to judge, and she is flighty. Ellen is none of these things. In the eyes of the reptile-gods, she is closer to them than she is to any deer or ape.
“Thank you,” Ellen murmurs. She turns to leave, and Deer-Woman watches her go, her ears flicked back in muted anger.
“You shouldn’t have said anything for her,” she scolds, once Ellen Harvelle is out of earshot. “She sympathizes with those…those aberrations! It isn’t natural, born to gods without being a god.”
“We cannot help the circumstances of our births,” Fence-Lizard says sagely. “Do you think Dionysus wanted to be ripped from his mother’s womb? Sewn into the thigh of his father? We do not choose what we are, only who.”
“Unnatural,” Deer-Woman says again.
She, unfortunately, is the majority.
“Come on, Dean,” Mary croons. Her year-old son burbles at her, all flailing limbs and bright eyes, and he rolls onto his side as she watches, and then tries to push himself up with his hands. He is strong, she can see that immediately, but he’s strong for a human. Healthy, for a human. Unique.
For a human.
She pats her hands on the ground, and halfway around the globe there is a minor earthquake, just barely registering on the Richter scale. She isn’t thinking; she is too focused on her son.
“You can do it!” Her son finally manages to push himself up, and he rolls back onto his rump and then struggles to get his feet underneath his body. “Come to mommy! Mommy’s good boy, you can do it! Come on!”
Dean’s legs wobble as he finally manages to extend them, to use them for the first time. He stands there, and then takes one wavering step forward, and another. His tiny face lights up like a burning star.
And then he tilts, and his legs shake beneath him, and he does not even get the chance to make a noise of alarm – he topples over like a stack of bricks, splayed all over the living room floor, and Mary is proud of him for the few steps he managed to take.
Dean’s mouth trembles, and then he rolls onto his back and begins to wave his arms and legs in infant rage, lips splitting apart, wailing. Tears run down his chubby cheeks. Mary freezes, and then she swiftly scoops up her son, holding him in her arms as she rushes to the window to glance up at the sky.
There are no clouds. No rain falls down to match her son’s tears, no hurricane winds, and the sun continues to shine as it normally does. Mary carries Dean back to the living room, where she turns on the television and sits down on the sofa in order to listen. There is a news story about the Pope. There is another about rising crime rates in Detroit.
There are none about sudden rainstorms, or hurricanes, or floods. It is a balmy, sunny day in Lawrence, Kansas.
“Oh, Dean,” Mary says, and she rubs her child’s back until his sobs subside, until the only evidence that he was ever unhappy at all are the tear stains on her blouse. “It’s okay, baby, it’s okay. We’ll try again tomorrow.”
Dean gurgles against her shoulder, watching, entranced, as Mary changes the channel to local news. There’s been another murder. Not nearby, thank the skies, but all the way on the other side of the county. The news anchor says that this is the same person, the same killer. A serial killer. Mary subconsciously holds her baby tighter, causing Dean to squall with displeasure.
“Shh,” she murmurs, and loosens her grip, and strokes his back. She watches the entire story, even though it makes her feel uneasy, without John home. This is no human murderer – all the families have been of supernatural creatures. A family of fae now bereft of a mother, an orphaned ogress, and a widower telepath. All of the victims have been mothers. All of them.
Mary carefully gets up from her sofa, and she goes to the front door to lock it, and then, just in case, she locks the windows, too. Just in case.
Just until John gets home.
When Dean turns three, Mary throws him a birthday party. He is still too young to understand why passing creatures sneer at him when she walks him in his stroller; he is still too young to understand hate or bigotry. He understands only love, something that Mary gives him in abundance, something that John was, at first, hesitant to offer…but offer it he does.
She invites everybody in the neighborhood – there are few other gods, but Fence-Lizard comes, and Ellen Harvelle and her husband, and Bobby Singer, an old friend of John’s, a human friend. There are many humans in their neighborhood, and, despite Deer-Woman’s disdain, Mary invites them, too. Some of them express amazement that her house looks exactly like theirs. She has a kitchen table, they exclaim! And a refrigerator! And a garden in the backyard!
“We sort of thought that you would have altars,” one woman admits (her name is Jennifer, and she is young and pretty, and her husband carries her single girl-child with the sort of care only afforded to infant creatures and fine china). “Or…or, you know. I read in Better Homes and Gardens that Kali decorates her house with…” She swallows. “With skulls.”
“I am not Kali,” Mary says with a smile. “The old gods are…very fond of symbolism. I prefer windows that let the light in.”
This sets Jennifer and the other humans at ease faster than any complicated explanations as to the differences between old and new gods could have. They circle around Dean and croon nonsense at him, while Fence-Lizard and Kokopelli (who is always traveling, but who has seen fit to visit, because he knows Mary from many years ago), and John and Mary all ring around the punch bowl that they have set up. There is a cake waiting in the kitchen, Dean’s first cake, but Mary will let people see their fill for now.
“He is healthy,” Kokopelli comments. Mary inclines her head. It is a compliment; children fall ill so easily, and the fact that she has kept Dean from doing so is a testament to her strength as a goddess and her skill as a mother. “I hear songs, in his life.”
“He will sing?” Perhaps he will be a god of music. Mary would be happy, with that. But Kokopelli shakes his head.
“Not his own music. But he will make it his own.”
“Well,” John says. His disappointment is almost palpable. Mary nudges him with her shoulder. “Well, I’m sure he’ll be a smart boy. That’s what matters these days, you know. Smarts. None of this…fancy control over the elements. The world’s changing, and gods have to change with it.”
Fence-Lizard nods sagely. Mary retreats into the circle of humans to retrieve her child, ignoring the pain that she feels in John’s heart – he is a god of smoke and fire and history. He is a god of the ever-winding road. He insults himself when he says that his own powers do not matter.
Mary loves him all the more for it.
When Dean is four, Mary becomes pregnant again. She carries Sam Winchester for only eight days before she gives birth, and they know, immediately, that he is not like his brother. When Sam is born, he opens his mouth to scream, to awaken his lungs, and all the lights in the hospital immediately flicker and die, and dogs outside raise their voices in a single, concerted howl.
Dean sits in the waiting room with his father. The birth is difficult, as they always are, with gods, and Mary doesn’t want either of them to see her when she is so vulnerable. To such a powerful goddess, giving birth is simultaneously a joy and a shame. She will be glad when it is over.
“I’m gonna have a brother?”
“Yes,” John says softly. “And because you’re the oldest, you have to take care of him. Even if he says that he can take care of himself, you have to protect him.”
“But I’m not special.”
John frowns. “Who told you that?”
“Red-Fawn, at Miss Missy’s.”
John closes his eyes, and reins in his temper. Deer-Woman’s little girl will grow up to be a gossip and a backstabber, just like her mother. When he opens his eyes again, Dean is staring at him with an earnestness that only children can manage. “You listen here, Dean. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that you aren’t special, do you hear me? Everyone is special.”
Dean’s small mouth purses into a frown. “But…Red-Fawn can call water. She makes it come out of the ground.”
“And that’s how Red-Fawn is special. You’re special in a different way.”
“I can’t call water.”
John reaches over, hooks his hands underneath Dean’s arms and lifts him, and then settles him in his lap. He’s so small. John had always imagined that any child of his, even in infancy, would feel heavier, or larger…like they were meant for something more. But Dean is so very fragile. So tiny.
“No,” John says. “But you can take care of your brother. And you’re smart. Don’t let anyone ever tell you different, Dean. You’re smart, and that’s all you need to get ahead in the world.”
The lights overhead flicker, and, outside, a hundred stray dogs raise their voices in unison. John bounces Dean on his knee as a harried-looking doctor emerges into the waiting room. There is blood on his coat – no one looks twice. This is a hospital for the otherworldly. Blood sometimes means very little, here.
“Let’s go meet your brother,” John says, and Dean smiles.
His body might be small, John notes, but his smile could encompass the earth.
Three months later, there’s a fire. It’s a fire that devours the house like a living thing, and the infant Sam wails as the light and the heat assault his eyes, as he’s shoved into his brother’s arms.
“Take your brother outside,” his father says, and Dean, who can barely keep a grip on his brother, nods grimly and then rushes from the house, away from that awful heat. The fire doesn’t touch him. It can’t, he knows that, because he’s holding his brother and nothing can hurt him when he’s protecting his brother. He puts his shoulder to the front door, and the hinges groan and then give way entirely – everything is weakened from the fire except for Dean. He stumbles across the grass, wincing when stones and small twigs dig into the soles of his feet. There’s a searing pain against his ankle, but he has to do this, for dad, for Sammy.
Their mother is still inside, but dad will get her out.
He falls to the ground, cradling Sam against his thin chest – his brother is crying, and Dean’s ankle hurts. He cautiously reaches to touch it, and feels raw, red skin, like the time he burned himself against the stove while mom was cooking. He must have brushed against something in the house while his dad was telling him to run.
Dean touches his little brother’s cheeks, and says, “It’s okay, Sammy. It’s okay,” the way he’s heard his mother do it. Slowly, Sam’s shrieks quiet. Thunder rumbles sullenly overhead, and a few drops of rain spatter down again Dean’s back. They subside quickly. The fire rages behind them.
He looks up, up at the house, at the window that once peeked into Sam’s nursery and now looks in at ash and embers.
There’s the figure of a man, standing there, and at first Dean thinks it’s dad, because the only other person in the house is their mother. But the flames surge, illuminating the blurry silhouette, and Dean realizes that it isn’t his father. It isn’t someone he even knows.
It’s a man, looking down at them. Dean isn’t sure, but he thinks…
He thinks the man might have yellow eyes. But maybe it’s just the fire.
“It’s okay,” Dean says again. Even though he knows it isn’t. He knows this because, as he watches the flames leap higher, the bright orange glow of them flickers, then darkens to black, and the man in the window smiles and then fades away into the shadows.