Noel stepped into the church. It was closed to the public, it always was at night, but Father Flanagan makes spare keys for God’s warriors. Noel didn’t know how many had been handed out, but he seemed to be the only person who actually used it. He flipped the light switch, listening to the muffled bang of each bank of lights turning on, one at a time, a luminous procession up the aisle.

Christ’s face looked down on him, peace hidden in the pain carved into his wooden eyes. Noel slowly walked up along the red carpet, careful to keep the scabbards tucked into his belt from hitting the pews on his left as he passed by. Even the carpet couldn’t fully muffle his steps as he approached the front row. He stopped to genuflect and pull the swords from his belt, laying them on the pew next to him. Again, he couldn’t help but see the peace in the pain and wondered if his face ever looked the same. He was too tired even to feel guilty about comparing himself to Christ again.

He bent down to the padded, red microfiber kneeler, crossing himself with practiced grace as he did, the whole thing a single, flawless motion. He bowed his head, trying to reach out with his heart like he normally did. Ever since his Awakening, it had been harder for Noel to feel God, but he always knew He was there. Tonight, he felt the Lord especially strongly.

“Dear Lord,” his Irish accent came unbidden, the language of his faith rolling off his tongue and around the church. “I know that I am not meant to return to You. That’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make for this world and I thank You for the chance to be worthy of it. Just the other night I was more concerned with myself, but it’s not worth it now. I know it’s not. The last time I prayed like this, I traded by Destiny for a favor that never happened. I know now that I was asking for myself, and the result is clear.

“Tonight, though,” he said, refusing to cry, “I ask for Your guidance not for myself, but for my friends. I will miss them, aye, but I am Your instrument and will do Your will. All I ask, please keep them safe. They would never want it to happen, but I don’t know if they’ll have somebody willing to die for them where they’re going, so they’ll need You to keep them from risking it. Watch over them, protect them, and if they must risk their lives, make sure some nutter crazier than them is around to take the bullet if it comes down to it, just like I was always ready to.”

He looked up again, seeing now neither pain nor peace, but only compassion in the empty, wooden eyes.

“E nomine Patri, et Fili, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.”

Though he crossed himself he continued to kneel there, his eyes closed, meditating on God’s love and grace.