Disclaimer: I own nothing in here. Well, almost nothing. Just playing in the sandbox. No copyright infingement intended.

Chapter 20: Self-Collection

They did not, in fact, open the school back up the next day, which gave Laura a three-day weekend to plan her 'mission'. It also, unfortunately, gave her too much time to waste in anticipation. The other girls had dragged her to a movie and through the mall, but she was hardly engaged by the experience. Her mind was too busy crunching ideas as to how she would complete her new mission to allow her to relax into the doldrums or 'normal life'.

Weekends at the Parker house tended to be quite hectic at the best of times, but this weekend was just… Quiet. Peter snuck off to work mid-morning after getting a call from someone at the Bugle, complaining about technical problems. Gwen decided to do a 'patrol shift' for most of the day, and disappeared out the back door.

Laura sat at the kitchen table for most of the day, pushing herself through the homework package that had been given to both her and Jessica to make up for the portion of the school year that they had 'missed'. The work itself was not remotely difficult for her, but the sheer volume of it made an effort to work through.

But as much as she slogged through the book of problems, her mind was focused equally on the task ahead. And, unfortunately for Laura, it was something she had almost no idea how to complete.

Where 'normal' children had a childhood of trial and error to fall back on, Laura found herself drawn up short. There was some insight available in the various skill sets that had been programmed into her mind for her intended purpose as an assassin. The various seduction techniques and theories, for example, could be broken down and reduced to a more useable format. The goal, after all, was to make a friend, not to seduce someone. Techniques for slipping through security checkpoints, the logic behind target prioritization… There were a dozen skillsets in her head that could each provide a small tidbit of preparation, but even together they amounted to surprisingly, and disappointingly, little.

The first few notes were quiet. They barely registered, even to Laura's enhanced hearing. They came haltingly, and with little fluid connection between them. But what followed made her stop in her work, and look up in something that might be considered either surprise, or wonder.

It was not the song she had played before. Not even close. But it carried the same message. Mournful, soaring tones of pain, accompanied by a soft, quiet melody of hope. Knowing nothing of music beyond its practical applications in infiltration, Laura didn't have the context to realize what she was hearing was as much a work of art as it was a piece of its composer's soul. She stood in the doorway for a long while, not quite sure how to react to the sound of her sister's soul given form.

The sun had gone down by the time Jessica's song died out. She sat at the keyboard, staring down at it as if to ask it a question, when she felt Laura sit down beside her. It was all she could do to keep from smiling as the younger clone leaned against her, instinctively trying to comfort the hurt she could sense.

"Sorry... I didn't mean to disturb you." She said quietly.

"You didn't." Laura replied. "I… Liked it."

That brought up a healthy blush. "Thanks…"

"Will you… Keep playing?"

Jessica blinked in surprise, but nodded. And despite her cramping fingers and sore back from sitting in the same position for hours, her hands slowly fell to the keys. This time, however, she focused on a tune she had heard on the radio somewhere, and instead of pouring out her soul, she was cautiously tapping out the melody of that exact song.

Problem being, that particular song made her want to sing…

"I'm coming home…

I'm coming home…

Tell the world I'm coming home…

Let the rain wash away

All the pain of yesterday…

I know my kingdom awaits

They've forgiven my mistakes.

I'm coming home, I'm coming home,

Tell the world that I'm coming…"

There as a crash in the hallway that made her stop in midsentence, and she whipped around to see Peter standing in the hallway, a look of bewilderment in his eyes. Immediately, she felt herself flush, but she forced an uneasy smile. "What?" She asked with a belligerent smirk. "Girl can't have a hobby?"

"I… Uhh… Wow…" He said with a sheepish grin. "That's pretty amazing…"

"Amazing like a fox?" She replied, smirking wider.

"Something like that…" Peter muttered, stooping to pick up the books he'd dropped. "You know… If you need anything, you just need to ask, right?"

Jessica blinked, her smirk morphing into a frown. "And what exactly brought that on?"

Peter simply shrugged. "It is what it is." He said noncommitantly, shuffling off through the kitchen and closing the basement door behind himself.

They didn't speak again for the rest of the weekend.

Laura wandered through the crowded halls of the school, her arms clamped tightly around the binder she was carrying as she walked. It was loud, and it smelled, but school was important, apparently, and she was at the very least determined to complete her mission for Aunt May.

She was going to make a friend.

The problem was, the rational part of her mind told her that the vast majority of the school would NOT be good choices as friend material. Many of the niche groups were totally insular, and would not welcome her. Most of the male population were either too afraid of her, or too attracted, or both, and she sensed that her family would be uneasy with her hanging around such prospects.

A small, self-satisfied smile flickered across her face at the thought. Her family… The thought sent warm fuzzies shooting through every limb, and left her with a warm feeling in her chest.

Still, by her own definitions, it was beginning to seem more and more unlikely that she would find someone to be her friend today. Or any time soon, for that matter.

Wolf whistles sounded around her every so often, but she just pushed herself through the crowd, ignoring them. They weren't interested in her, and she was not in them. But as she walked, she heard them talking, and saw them staring, and she knew, somehow, that they would not welcome her.

They were normal.

She, was not.

The library was the first place that was genuinely quiet as she pushed the door shut behind her. Groups of students sat around the tables, some reading, cramming for tests, others lounging and talking. It was the kind of place that offered a sanctuary to those unneeded by the rest of the school populace.

So, the perfect place for her, then.

She slumped into a cushy chair with a small, frustrated sigh and pulled a notebook out of her bag, idly flipping open the work package she'd been given to finish by her teachers, in order to catch up to the rest of the class. At least she could get some work done on that, she figured.

The mission was probably a bust anyway. She bit down on her tongue, feeling the throbbing of her pulse as she tasted coppery blood. Aunt May would not be pleased with her attitude, she knew. But it was not like the solution was going to fall right into her lap.

Until it did.

THUMP! "Ow!"

Laura stared at the girl who'd tripped into her lap, not noticing as a small trail of blood leaked out from between her lips. The girl was tall, and a red shock of hair that was held up in a tight ponytail obscured her face for a second as she tried to disentangle herself in a flail of limbs.

"Stupid glasses!" She complained bitterly. "Sorry about that, I'm not use to my- OHMYGOD!" Blood drained from her face as she managed to fall back off the chair, and her eyes locked on the trail of blood from the smaller girl's lips. "I'm SO sorry! I didn't mean to-"

"It's fine." Laura said evenly, taking in the girl's features. Deep, forest green eyes. Long copper hair. A brand new pair of prescription glasses. A slight smattering of pale freckles on her nose. A thin, pale scar across the back of one hand. Pierced ears, diamond, half a carat each. High-tech watch. Perfect teeth. Premium running shoes, lightly worn. Muscles well-toned, not tense, no self-preservation instinct. One blade to the neck, just a bare twitch and a short kick-

She shook her head and forced a smile. "I bit my lip a little, it's not your fault."

The girl seemed to shake herself and she gave an embarrassed grin as she stood up. "No, it's the new prescription, I'm not used to it yet, and- Oh, wow! Look at you!" She paused, looking Laura over for a moment. "Hey, are you a gymnast? I've never seen you at practice before… New student maybe?"

Laura blinked. "Yes. I am new to school." She stated. She frowned. "I can do acrobatics, if that's what you mean. How did you know?" She asked suspiciously.

"Oh, it's all in the body language." The girl replied, sitting at a chair across from her. "You've got the right size and muscle tone, if a few too many curves… I've been doing it for a few years now, not that I'm much good, I'm way too tall after all, but still it's fun to do, and it's a great way to work out, and-"

"Who are you?" Laura asked, cutting the girl off.

She grinned and stuck out her hand. "Cecelia Alexandra Vanille Delores Cincaid, at your service. But you can call me Cecily, everybody does."

There was a flash of lightning before it started to rain. It would probably be the last real rain of the year, with winter fast approaching, but the man took no heed of the water that poured from the Heavens in sheets.

The man stood out in the rain for a moment, enjoying the sensation of it on his body, before he sighed and stepped back out into the rapidly emptying streets. The signal had flared up again the day before, only to go cold almost instantly, leaving the man to wander the back streets of New York alone, mutterring quietly to himself.

This city is a cesspool… The man thought to himself, his hands fisted in the pockets of his duster as he fought against the negative energy that flowed through the city. This place was an old place of power, he could feel it in his bones. Good, evil, and everything in between.

It was evil that he felt at the moment.

Nearby, too.

"NO! Let me GO!" The woman was screaming, but there was nobody to hear it.

"Heh, I'd shut that little trap o' yours, honey." The thug drawled with a leer, holding the woman's arms down. "I'd hate to have to hurt you…"

He wasn't expecting the hand that grabbed him by the back of the neck, and he certainly wasn't expecting to be thrown across the alleyway and into a full dumpster. "Who the fuck?" The thug spat, clawing his way out of the dumpster. "You think you're some kinda hero, cowboy?"

The man stood between the thug and the woman, who was now sobbing in a corner of the red brick buildings that made up the alleyway. He was tall, and his long leather duster concealed his build, as did the black cowboy hat shadow his face. "Yu picked the wrong night to be out on the streets, rapist" The man said calmly, his thick southern accent turning the words into a growl almost.

"What do you think you are, old man?" The thug said lazily, pulling a gun from the waistband of his pants. "I think you're crazy, gramps. And putting you down is just one more service I'd be doing to this fair city."

The man closed the distance between them in an instant, his gloved hand closing around the thug's neck as he swatted the gun out of his hand. There came a huge flash of light, and a roar of heat, drowning out even the sound of the thunder from overhead.

But not the voice. The terrible voice..


There was a scream in the night, and then the world carried on, one soul less to pollute it.

A/N: And so I return. Apologies, my friends, it really has taken me too long to get over the recent goings on in the ultimate continuity of Marvel. But, I've decided.

From now on, MYcontinuity is canon.

That's right, folks, I will no longer be reading from the so called 'source material' beyond what I've already used, at least not for SM. I'm still working on getting a UXM story up and running to parallel the events in this story, look out for more of that in the future.

Littl bit of exposition here, some plot holes filled and some characters finally confirmed. Grats to those of you who guessed the rider's ID, not gonna use the ultimate canon idea for him either, stick around for more on that.

I'm a little surprised nobody guessed Cecily, though. Huh, guess I went WAY too subtle on that one. Ah well, more on that later.

R&R, my faithful readers. Ahh... It's good to be home.

Oh, one last thing. Thanks o ALL of you, for making my story the single most popular one in the Ultimate Marvl section on FFnet. You guys are the best. (And yes, I did check.)

As ever, Stay Frosty. -E. Red