The first rays of light began to stream in through the window and illuminate Xena's sleeping form. She was sleeping in Ares' bed in the one bedroom apartment he had taken possession of for just this set of circumstances. Ares had slept on the couch.

Ares leaned over and caressed her long black hair. It would be so easy to take advantage of a grieving 15 year-old girl, but he was getting her back in the way that mattered to him at the moment. It was only a matter of time before the hands that rested on his pillow took their first life and that thought filled him with excitement.

Soon the taking of life would mean nothing more to her than the rush of adrenaline and power that was meant to be felt. Then she would develop the taste for ultimate power. She would lead a rebellion with like-minded soldiers; they would start small in a tiny Latin American country and grow until they enveloped the whole continent. By then, the world would be too late in stopping them and the next great empire would be born. It had been so long since there had been an empire under a mighty, merciless fist. He could picture it, the whole world under one power. He quivered in anticipation at such an unmatched feat. It would make the Roman Empire look like child's play. The whole glorious future was before his eyes, and it was beautiful.

There was a knock on the door interrupting his dreams of glory, and Ares didn't have to wonder who it was. There were few people who knew where he lived and even fewer people who would angrily pound on the door if they knew who was behind it. He opened the door.

"I can tell by your smug look that she's here," Hercules said with a look of disgust. "Did you know her mother is worried sick?"

He only smiled, knowing the smile would irritate Hercules. "She should have thought about that before she distanced her daughter emotionally."

"She was hurting. People say things they don't always mean. And she wouldn't be hurting if you hadn't brought that boy to death's door. What do you think Xena would say if she knew that?"

He smirked. "I know better than to ever be the direct cause of her losing a loved one."

"But you don't mind being the indirect cause, do you? I know that gang you joined did it. I've already got a couple of your new minions behind bars for it."

He shrugged. "I'm sure they'll get bail, not that I care one way or the other, but you don't have any real proof. It's a shame what they did, but this is what happens when a new member doesn't show up time after time. I bet she's ready to be a member now though. Tina's hate and rage is beginning to churn like the old days at the loss of her brother, and she will lose him. It's only a matter of time now. I think all this recipe needs is a cup full of betrayal mixed with a pinch of loss, and she's mine again. After all, that's all it took to bring her over the last time. Everyone in her life is as they were originally. It guarantees things will work out perfectly this time."

Hercules' eyes narrowed. "She didn't have her friends at the start either. People don't come anymore loyal than Gabrielle and Joxer do. They would never betray Xena if that's where you're going with this."

"Not on their own maybe, but if you haven't learned by now that circumstances can be manipulated to suit any purpose than you never will."

Hercules' fist slammed into his stomach with enough force to double him over, but Ares only laughed instead of retaliating. Hercules knew then that he had already been manipulated to suit Ares' will as he looked and saw a wide-eyed Tina.

"My humblest apologies, dear brother, but she couldn't feel that she had any adults left to turn to, now could she?" he whispered mockingly before slamming the door in his face.

Hercules was enraged at Ares and himself for falling for that trap. He took a deep, calming breath. Right now he had to go reassure an anxious mother that her daughter was safe, a fact he didn't even believe himself, but if it came down to that, he had brought Evil Xena back from the brink once before, and he was sure that he could do it again if necessary.

sss

Ares watched the door seal shut with satisfaction. "I always knew the coach was a little crazy. Imagine assaulting a student. I would call the police, but they don't do anything. Have they done anything yet about what happened to your family? You have to take justice into your own hands to get things done."

She didn't disagree. "Why was he over here anyway?"

"He didn't say, but he was probably trying to find you and take you back to your mother."

"Well, he wasted a trip." She ran her fingers through her hair in an effort to smooth her bed-ragged hair. "I probably should give her a call though just so she doesn't try to send the police over next."

Ares knew he didn't have to do anything out of the ordinary to cut this tie. Much like her daughter, grief tended to make Cyrene angry and being reborn as Irene Polis hadn't changed that, and he knew this conversation would lead to cutting words and a hardening of hearts on both sides. He sat down to enjoy the show.

She called her mother's cell phone.

"Hello?"

"It's me. I just wanted you to know that I won't be coming home."

"Is that so? May I ask where you will be?"

"I'm staying with Aaron."

"Well, that suits me fine. I can wash my hands of you. I've done all I can with you anyway. Your brother isn't going to recover. You know that, don't you?"

She didn't bother to answer; she only hung up the phone. "Can I borrow your keys?"

"Of course." He dug them out of his pocket. He knew she had never ridden a motorcycle on her own, but he also knew she had enough physical prowess to handle it, and he was delighted by her blatant disregard of the law.

sss

Abby's home was a two-story white house and as cheerful looking as the girl herself. Tina knocked on the door and was almost immediately rewarded with her friend answering.

"Tina, hi. What are you doing here?"

"Abby. My—my brother has been beaten into a coma, and he's not going to make it. I want to try and see him in the hospital to talk to him, but you know how my mother can be. I need some moral support when I go. I know that you're leaving to see your grandmother tomorrow, but do you have time to come with me for a short visit?"

A look of horror crossed the girl's face. "You did it to him, didn't you? Like you punched Johnny on Halloween night."

"I thought we were past that. I explained to you what I think really happened."

"And you think I trust anything you tell me?"

"You said you believed me," she said in a tone that made it sound like she was growling.

"I said that because I was afraid of you. Johnny was afraid of you. I knew what you were like at your old school and how you're ready to go postal at the drop of a hat, but now I can see your own family isn't even safe from your rage. I can't believe you thought we were still your friends after what you did."

"Well, I won't fall for it again," she sneered. "You can count on that. I know now there is no such thing as real friendship."

Tina tore away from the door and onto the motorcycle, too enraged to notice the house was far too dark and silent for the residents to be at home, the Bardings having decided to leave early for their trip.

When she was out of sight, Ares laughed maliciously as he turned from the blonde girl back into the form of a young boy. Some days it definitely paid to be a god.

sss

Betrayal, loss, hate. Tina had experienced it all now in her young life or so she thought.

The world felt like it was crashing down around her, a feeling intensified by her tender years, a time when the least little thing seemed like the end of the world.

She didn't even feel like the same person anymore, although she had a strange feeling this person had always been lurking below the surface.