She learned to research by trying to find herself.
It wasn't enough to soak up the little bits of information that Giles had already found. It wasn't enough peer over his shoulder as he dug patiently through his old books, trying to find her in their pages, offering her whatever fragments of knowledge he could unearth. She knew he tried, but it wasn't enough.
She came from somewhere, with some purpose, and she searched for the how and the why until she ran out of books, and reached the end of the Internet. Then she started over from the beginning. Again. And again.
Buffy watches her with narrowed eyes, wanting to know why homework isn't being done. Why she's plowing her way through Latin and Greek with the help of three dictionaries, but flunking Spanish. Moldy old books aren't where her future lies; it's in social studies, and trigonometry, and surviving until graduation.
But it's not about the future -- or maybe it is. There can't be a future if there isn't a past, can there? She can't know where she's going, if she doesn't know where she started. History is linear, straight, arrowing from nowhere to infinity. It can't just start, wham, right in the middle. Because if it does, what's to keep it from stopping, wham, long before the end?
Buffy knows where she came from. The Slayer knows what she was, and is, and will be. Her sister doesn't have that luxury.
She steals the laptop whenever possible, hoping for a new site, a new scanned book, a new bit or byte than can fill one more gap in the glowy green jigsaw puzzle of her life. There hasn't been anything new for months, but she looks anyway, and when she's done, she looks for other things. The books can't tell her what she is, but they can tell her about everything else, now that she's learned to look. Her life begins and ends with Now; her sister, her friends, are her only proof that she's still real, so she finds what she needs to keep them here.
Greek and Latin got too easy; she finished the books before she was ready. Demon languages are harder, take more time. As long as there are books she hasn't read, there are still possibilities. One day, she'll open a text or a memoire to learn how to kill a Halgar demon, and as she scans the faded runes, there she'll be.
Everything she was, written in ink or blood. Everything she should be, laid out on parchment or paper.
She knows it will probably never happen, pretends even to herself that she's just being a good Scoobie, doing her little bit to save the world. But her heart skips a beat whenever she turns a new page, and dies a little whenever she reaches the end of it.
Spike used to help when he was in the mood; he spent an entire summer tutoring her in the intricacies of Russian and Fyarl, German and Rich'naran. Now it's Xander who sits with her for hours, patiently looking up words in the ancient volumes whose leather crumbles at his touch.
Find a word. Find a meaning. Find a life. The library lost with the Watcher's Council haunts her, a tease of blowing ash where hope was written once. But wishing and screaming won't bring them back, so she haunts stores in town and bookshops online, and tries to find them again.
Her library grows, and Buffy makes noises about budgets, but doesn't stop her. It's business, after all, and she lets her believe that that's all it is. Principal Wood brings books his mother and her Watcher left, and blinks when she pounces on them with glee, as if he's brought chocolate or the Backstreet Boys. A new shipment arrives from England, addressed to Rupert Giles, but she opens it first.
Years ago, she was something else. Years ago, she became Dawn Summers. Years ago, she first began this hunt, and what was obsession then, is now simply what she is. Persistent. Useful. She Who Researches. The Key to All Knowledge. She likes what she is, what she has made herself, but she can't stop looking for what she was.
She searches for pieces of herself in every book, every scroll, every demon, and she doesn't know anymore what she'll do if she ever finds them all, finds the key that unlocks the puzzle of her life.
What she'll become if the picture it forms... doesn't look like her anymore.