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Today, she missed Tara.

It wasn't her birthday. It wasn't even the date she had been shot. There was nothing about that particularly day that should remind her of Tara. And yet, she missed her.

She hadn't thought of Tara in a while. It was strange, considering that right after her death Tara had been her first thought when she opened her eyes in the morning and the last one when she closed them at night. She had been obsessed by her death, just couldn't put it out of her head. It had come as such a shock. Tara wasn't supposed to die. Tara was kind, and good, and patient, and she always watched fights from the sidelines. She wasn't brave like Buffy or Spike, who would always jump into a fight. She wasn't ocassionally reckless like Xander or even Anya. Tara had never been born to be a hero.

Instead, she died a martyr.

She felt sort of guilty. After all Tara had done for her, how could she forget her like that? After she had vowed never to forget her, how was it possible that entire weeks had passed by since she'd last thought of her? And yet, they had. Life had moved on without Tara, and so had she.

Many things had come to pass since her death, and every day brought new difficulties, new worries, new tasks that filled her mind during her watchful hours... and new nightmares to disturb her nights. Because, if there was one thing that living on a Hellmouth constantly provided, it was material for nightmares.

Especially now, that The First Evil was on the loose, getting rid of girls her same age. Dawn shivered, wondering how many Potentials throughout the world might have been killed that day by The First's minions. She decided she didn't want to know. It was enough to see the girls, girls with whom she chatted and bickered and laughed, dying all around her.

Dawn sighed. Tara would have had something comforting to say. She always had. Comforting people had been Tara's area of expertise. Dawn had had the chance to find out after Buffy's death, when Revello Drive felt so cold and empty, and terrible nightmares of Glory and the lightning-struck tower plagued her sleep. Every time she woke up screaming, Tara would be there.

Tara would be there, with a glass of hot milk, or a hug, or soothing words, and somehow, she would make the shadows go away. Just like her mother had done when Dawn was little... or at least, as she remembered she had done. And then Dawn would have placed her head on the older girl's lap, who would have stroked her hair, and she would have been able to spill all of her fears and worries without a concern, because no matter what she said, Tara would never judge her. Which was exactly the reason she missed her so much today.

There had been nothing particular or extraordinary about that day. Nothing that could have triggered memories of her deceased friend – more a sister than a friend – had taken place, nobody had mentioned her. Dawn certainly hadn't been thinking about her when she tried to brush her hair in a bathroom packed with squeaking teenagers. Instead, she had been gloomily wondering if her house would ever feel her home again.

Her feelings of gloom had only increased throughout the day when she was, as per usual, gently put aside by Buffy so she could focus her attention on her pupils. She had been told to reasearch... as if any research would do them any good. Caleb was getting the upper hand, and Dawn seriously doubted that The First was stupid enough to leave lying around a book that contained information on how to kill him.

So instead of reading, she sat in one corner with the thickest volume she could find and brooded. Deep down, she knew she didn't want to be like those girls, getting ready for death. She didn't want to wait her whole life fpr the death of another girl to receive her powers and prove herself. She didn't want to push her whole life aside to go to the encounter of an early and painful death. She didn't want to be a Potential.

And yet, deep down, Dawn felt envious. Envious of their mission, envious of their importance, envious of the glory they would have. But, above it all, she felt envious of the attention they got from her sister when she got none at all.

Dawn knew it wasn't her sister's fault. After all, what she was doing was far more important than taking her to the mall or asking how she was doing at school. After all, she was trying to save the world. Again. It was only natural that Buffy didn't have so much time to think of Dawn anymore, and she understood that. She wasn't fifteen anymore, she had grown up enough to realise that there were things far more important than her own feelings. It was nothing personal if Buffy didn't have time for her nowadays.

Dawn understood that. She knew her sister cared about her as much as always. She knew she would never push her aside on purpouse.

However, that didn't stop Dawn from feeling bitter and resentful towards the world in general and the incredibly loud Potentials in particular. If she only were one of them... If only this wasn't taking place... If only these damned Potentials had been left to the care of anybody else who wasn't Buffy...

Dawn knew she should feel ashamed of her thoughts, and a part of her did. Other part, though, was twistedly glad to drown herself in self-pity. It was petty, it was weak, but right now it was all she had.

She was pulled out of her glum reverie by Andrew, who approached her with a plate of pancakes on his hands.

'Wanna some before the girls smell them?' He offered, smiling somewhat akwardly, like he did every time he was near her. Dawn forced a smile. It wasn't that she didn't like Andrew – he was sort of cute, even if he was a bit dork-y – but she just wasn't in the mood.

'No, thanks. They can have them if they want.'

Andrew's face fell.

'But I did them with funny shapes, look!'

Dawn froze. It was ridiculous, Andrew's comment couldn't have been more innocent – and yet, coldness washed over her as though her veins had been doused with icy water. What was wrong with her?

Only later, when she was all alone in the room she now shared with more girls she cared to count, Dawn realised why Andrew's words had affected her so much.

Tara made you funny shaped-pancakes, remember? Right after Buffy's death, when the house was so cold and you'd turn invisible in everybody's eyes but hers...

Her throat constricted. Tara. Sweet, caring Tara, who always had time for Dawn when everybody else was busy; Tara, who always had a word of comfort and a tissue for her tears. Tara, who'd been the only one capable of making her forget, even if it was just for a moment, that she was an orphan. Tara, who'd died too soon.

Tara, whom she'd absolutely forgotten all about.

Before she could stop herself, tears burnt all the way down her cheeks, falling on the mattress. How could she have forgotten Tara? Tara, with her tender smiles and her thumb-wrestling and all her light, light that had been robbed from them. How could she forget?

Dawn hid her face on the pillow, trying to keep her sobs from being heard. Not like anyone would have cared, they all had more important things to worry about. Only Tara had always been able to notice when Dawn's eyes were red and swollen, only she had been able to put aside whatever end-of-the-world stuff the rest was dealing with at the moment and rush to her side. Only Tara had... and now she was gone.

Dawn wept harder when she remembered what the first months after her passing had been like. It hadn't been like Mom's, which she'd refused to accept at first, Her mother couldn't be dead, she couldn't stay dead: Dawn needed her so she would bring her back. Only later would she realise how incredibly dangerous that idea was and, slowly, inadvertently, accept it.

It hadn't been like Buffy's, filled with nightmares and guilt, of fear and heartache and never-ending loneliness. No, Tara's absence had been completely different.

Tara's absence had been soft, gentle, and all the more overwhelming because of it. Because Mom and Buffy had been the center of her universe, of everybody's universe and at their deaths the world had come out of its joint and nothing would ever be the same. Every day, every second, she knew they were gone. They both had had such strong personalities, such sheer force of magnetism, that nobody could forget for an instant they were gone, gone forever. It was like the sun: nobody could not feel its absence.

Tara had been different. Tara had been so silent, so shy, so fond of dark corners and quiet places, that one could almost not notice she wasn't there. She had never stood up, she had never been in the spotlight. She usually kept everything to herself: while others argued, while others joked or strategized, she sit in her corner quietly, waiting for somebody to ask what she thought on the matter before speaking her mind.

Dawn had grown used to turn her head and ask for Tara's opinion whenever there was a discussion, because she knew that otherwise the shy witch would not share her thoughts. She'd grown so used to it, that she kept doing so over and over again after her death. Buffy and Xander would be trying to decide whether take chinese or thai, whether go to the movies or the Bronze or what to watch on TV, and Dawn would turn around to ask Tara what she preferred, each time feeling like she was doused with cold water when she saw Tara's seat empty and the harsh reality of her absence hit her with renewed strength. Or she would tip-toe her way down the stairs, half-expecting to find her in the kitchen making her pancakes; or she would put an extra plate on the table, or she would serve an extra mug of tea when Buffy asked one for herself, and it would be the yellow one with the daisies, Tara's secret favourite... And each time, each time she did one of those things, she saw Buffy and Xander exchange a glance and she would feel her heart breaking just a little bit more, because she knew what they were thinking and keeping shut. Each time it hurt just a little more.

Because, if her Mom and Buffy had been like the sun, Tara had been like air. So silent, so invisible that everybody forgot it existed... until the next time they needed to breathe.

'Dawnie? Dawnie, what's wrong?'

For a moment, for a blissful, heart-breaking moment, it was Tara sitting by her side, it was Tara pulling her into an embrace.

But Dawn saw blonde where it should have been brown, green where it should have been hazel and her crying became more desperate.

'Dawnie, what is it?'

There was a knot so tight in her throat that Dawn could not speak. She could only hold to her sister for dear life, each sob hurting like a stab in her chest.

And it was Tara's death all over again; her cold, limp body on the floor; the shock, the horror she'd felt, and the loneliness of the long hours she'd spent by the corpse's side, unwilling to leave her dear friend, her dear sister, alone even though she knew she was long gone. She was lost, lost to them and lost to the world, lost to life and to love. And it hurt more than she could ever tell.

'It's Tara,' she sobbed. 'She's gone and I... I forgot...'

Buffy's arms tightened around her.

'Shh, shh, calm down, everything's okey.'

But it wasn't okey, because Dawn had forgotten Tara, because Dawn had let Tara go and suddenly she understood what Willow had been going on about when Amy had placed that spell on her. Because forgetting Tara, even if it was for an instant, was like killing her.

'I... I miss her so much, so much it hurts...'

A gentle hand stroked her hair. 'I know, Dawnie, I know. I... I miss her too.'

And Buffy kept holding her, caressing her head until her sobs subdued. But she didn't let her go, and Buffy and Dawn kept clinging to each other as shadows invaded the room and the sun set in the horizon. Outside there was a war, an End of Days, but in this room, in this room there were just two sisters holding each other for comfort.

Today she missed Tara. Today she remembered her. Today she cried for her lost friend. Today the ache of her loss was almost too much too bear.

Today, though, she didn't have to go through that ache alone.