A special thank you to all those who reviewed, favorited, or followed my stories this year. I hope you all had a very Merry Christmas and have a wonderful New Year!
Previously published in Blood Brothers 5.
Angels We Have Heard on High
"Deeeeean, c'mon!" Sammy called impatiently, pulling on his big brother's hand as he hurried to the barn-like outbuilding as fast as his short, six-year-old legs would carry him.
Pastor Jim's church was doing a live nativity scene this year and everyone had gone all out for it. They'd turned the old outbuilding behind the church into a barn, which now housed real, live farm animals that someone had donated for the nights around Christmas, to lend authenticity to the whole thing. There was an old cow, a fairly mangy-looking donkey, a few sheep, some baby goats, and something Dean thought might've been an ox. A young mother played the role of Mary with her newborn baby bundled tightly against the cold, and the baby's proud daddy played a grinning Joseph. Over the outbuilding, Pastor Jim had somehow rigged a large, bright star to imitate the star that had led the shepherds to the Christ child that long-ago night. There was even an angelic chorus outside, made up of church choir members wearing white robes and feathery wings and halos fashioned from gold tinsel, singing their hearts out.
Sammy had become enthralled with watching the animals, seeing the sweet, pure face of the Virgin Mary as she gazed down at her child, watching with awe the innocence of baby Jesus, and listening to the beautiful sounds of the angels singing. He especially loved the bright star that shone above the stable, not even seeming to care that it wasn't a real star. No, everything enchanted Sammy, and he'd begged and begged until Dean had agreed they could sit out on one of the hay bales surrounding the nativity and watch for a while.
Dean chose the hay bale closest to the space heater that had been set up in the enclosed area to stave off the cold. He turned to his little brother, who was settling himself on the bale of hay beside Dean, never taking his eyes off the wondrous sight before him. His little face was lit with such awe that it made something inside Dean ache.
"Here, hold this, Sammy." Dean handed a big thermos to his brother, making sure the cap was on tightly before passing it over. Once he had both hands free, he pulled out the big, thick blanket he'd taken off the bed they were sharing back at the rectory and tucked it around Sammy, making sure he was covered as much as possible. Then he drew the blanket up around himself, leaving room for his arms to maneuver.
He took the thermos back from Sammy and poured the hot chocolate he'd made into the lid that doubled as a cup, then passed it to his little brother. "Be careful, kiddo, it's hot. Don't spill it on yourself." He watched until Sammy had both little hands wrapped around the cap before he let go. He took a swig of his own from what was left in the thermos.
The angelic chorus started in on a new song. "Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let Earth receive her King. Let every heart prepare Him room, and Heaven and nature sing. And Heaven and nature sing. And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing."
They sat there for a while, just drinking their cocoa and watching the scene before them. People from the church came through to see the nativity, some sitting for a while on nearby hay bales, some moving on to join in the caroling outside. It was quiet, peaceful. The night around them seemed hushed, filled with the same hopeful expectation of that first Christmas night, so many years ago.
Dean felt an odd sensation steal over him and had to concentrate to figure out what it was. It was something he dimly remembered from Before, from nights when his mom would tuck him into bed, or long rainy days when he and his mom and dad would stay inside and play games. It took him a few minutes, but it finally came to him: contentment. That was what he was feeling.
It was kinda nice, Dean admitted to himself as he listened to the angels' song. "He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of His righteousness. And wonders of His love. And wonders of His love. And wonders, wonders, of His love."
After he'd drunk every drop of the hot chocolate, Sammy handed the thermos lid back to Dean, who screwed it on and put the thermos away. Sammy snuggled closer to his big brother until Dean wrapped an arm around him and tucked him in tight to his side. Dean's touch seemed to warm and comfort him, and he leaned his head against Dean's shoulder, breathing softly and resting his weight against him, trusting his brother to hold him up. "It's nice, huh, Dean?"
"Yeah, squirt, it's nice." Dean smiled indulgently down at the small boy who was all shining eyes and dimpled smiles.
"Hey, Dean? Pastor Jim said Jesus's mommy was named Mary. That was our mommy's name, too, right?"
Dean had to swallow hard against an unexpected lump in his throat. Suddenly his own gaze couldn't be pulled from the woman before him, cradling her child in her arms, looking down at her baby boy with such love and gentleness. But in his mind's eye, he saw his mom holding baby Sammy. It was almost like looking at a picture he'd seen once, of something that had happened to another little boy. The edges were worn and faded, leaving little more than the impression of that tender look on her face, though time had smudged the details. He couldn't remember anything else about the day, or what they'd been doing, nothing but the sense of love he'd gotten watching his mom as she'd gazed down at his little brother, a moment his memory had captured and guarded all these years. Dean felt a burning in his eyes. Must've gotten dust in 'em or somethin'. Stinkin' barn. He cleared his throat. "Yeah, Sammy, that's right."
"D'ya think that's why Jesus wanted our mommy in Heaven—because she reminded Him of His mommy?" Sammy asked curiously, seemingly unaware of the effect his question had on his big brother.
Dean's heart squeezed painfully tight and he had to fight for the breath to answer. "I don't know, Sammy. I think Jesus's own mom is with Him in Heaven now. He lived an awful long time ago."
Sammy pondered that for a second. "But our mommy is in Heaven, right, Dean?"
"'Course she is," Dean answered emphatically.
Sammy nodded as if Dean had confirmed what he'd already known to be true. "The angels are real happy 'bout baby Jesus bein' born, Dean. Think Mommy and Daddy were happy when we were born?"
"Sure they were, Sammy. I've never seen 'em so happy as on the day you were born," Dean assured.
"Bet they were real happy when you were borned, too, Dean," Sammy offered helpfully, clearly not wanting his brother to feel left out.
"Sure," Dean agreed easily, though the ache was fierce in his chest and it was tough to swallow. "Who wouldn't be happy to get a great lookin' kid like me?" he joked, hoping to ward off the emotion threatening to overwhelm him.
That seemed to quiet Sammy for a while as he considered things. Dean could almost see the gears turning in his ever-active brain.
Then, "Hey, Dean?" His voice was small, as if he was afraid to ask what he wanted to. "Do—d'ya think our mommy ever held us like that, when we were babies? Like Jesus's mommy?" He nodded toward the woman gazing lovingly down at the child in her arms.
"Yeah, Sammy," Dean said, his voice quiet. "I know she did."
"Wish I could 'member." Imploring, puppy-dog eyes looked up at his big brother.
Dean felt that dust in his eyes again. "I wish ya could, too, Sammy."
"She looks like she loves Him a lot." Sammy's tone was wistful, longing.
Dean squeezed his kid brother's shoulders with the arm encircling him. "Mom loved us a lot, Sammy. She loved you a lot. Used to tell everyone what a great kid you were," he boasted.
"Sure. Used to play with you a lot, too."
"What'd we play?" Sammy asked with a curious gleam in his eyes.
Dean fought the instinctive urge to shut the conversation down before it went any further—he couldn't take much more of this. There was a reason he always avoided talking about Before. But he knew there was a lot Sammy wanted—needed—to know, and the hopeful pleading in his little brother's eyes was impossible to resist. He couldn't change the fact that they didn't have a permanent home, or that their dad wasn't with them for the holidays, but he could give Sammy a little bit of their mom back. After all, it was Christmas.
Dean took a deep breath to steel himself and let it out slowly. Then he reached deep inside and pulled up his few treasured memories of Before. It hurt, sure, felt like having his heart sliced into, but it was for Sammy. He would do anything for Sammy. "Uh…patty cake. Peek-a-boo. And she always smiled just like that when she held you." Dean gestured toward the Virgin Mary with Jesus. In truth, his memories of their mom were all starting to fade with time, something that made Dean feel a little desperate sometimes, but there didn't seem to be anything he could do about it. He couldn't remember much about how she'd been with Sammy. But there was no reason for Sammy to know that. Dean was sure their mom had looked just like Mary holding Jesus when she'd held baby Sammy. And she'd always played games with him, so he was sure she'd done it with Sammy, too. "She always had a happy smile when she held you. And she'd kiss you every night, and tuck you into bed. Sing to you sometimes, too," Dean elaborated, giving Sammy more of his memories of their mom for his own. It was only right—Sammy'd had so little time with her.
Sammy gave a happy sigh, snuggling closer. "Sounds nice."
"Yeah," Dean agreed, remembering. It had been nice. He shoved aside the pang in his heart and focused on the warm weight of his brother at his side. "She loved you a whole lot, Sammy. Don't ever forget that, 'kay?"
"'Kay, Dean." Sammy watched for a few minutes more, letting out a giggle at the antics of one of the baby goats. Gradually, his weight against Dean became heavier, boneless, as he slumped against his big brother, breathing deeply in sleep.
Outside, the angels were still singing. "Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright. Round yon virgin mother and child. Holy infant so tender and mild. Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace."
Dean sat for a few more minutes, watching the scene before him through a veil of mist. The love the young woman felt for her baby radiated from her, and Dean wished Sammy could remember what it felt like to be held and loved like that by their mom. Wished he could remember it better himself.
"Silent night, holy night. Shepherds quake at the sight. Glories stream from heaven afar. Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia! Christ, the Savior is born. Christ, the Savior is born."
The angels sounded so beautiful, and the night was so peaceful, that Dean let himself sit and enjoy it for a few moments. Peace wasn't something he had a lot of in his life. What was the harm in taking just a few minutes to enjoy it when it found him? Besides, Sammy had just fallen asleep. It would be a shame to wake him up so soon. No, they'd stay for just a little longer.
"Silent night, holy night. Son of God, love's pure light. Radiant beams from Thy holy face. With the dawn of redeeming grace. Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth. Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth."
The temperature was dropping and Dean knew Pastor Jim would come find them soon, so he gathered his sleeping brother into his arms, blanket still wrapped around him. Sammy mumbled his name sleepily and wrapped his arms around Dean's neck, curling into his big brother's warmth. Dean decided to come back for the old thermos later, since he already had a handful.
Carefully, he stood, his precious burden held tightly to his chest. As they walked out of the stable, Dean looked up at the cool, clear night sky. Overhead, one star shone more brightly than the rest.
"Merry Christmas, Mom," he whispered, hoping she could hear him from wherever she was.
Then he gathered his little brother—the best gift his mom had ever given him—more tightly into his arms, and carried him safely back to the house, while the angels sang on behind them.