When Judgment Day arrives on April 21, 2011, John Connor-- who has always known himself to be the future savior of mankind-- is twenty-seven years old and has spent his entire life in preparation for this moment. Buffy Summers-- former savior of mankind, who'd finally begun to settle into her retirement-- has just turned thirty and has never heard his name.
That changes over the weeks and months to come. When the machine mind of Skynet turned on its creators, half the world's population was erased in an orgy of nuclear destruction; it takes time for survivors to begin reconnecting, reaching hands to one another amid the haunted rubble of their fallen civilization, but as they do the name of Connor spreads over the airwaves like a virus. Somewhere out there, someone is fighting back, and such news carries hope.
She doesn't meet him face to face until three years later, when the stubborn eighteen-year-old working with her survivor's group talks her into crashing Connor's thirtieth birthday celebration. They normally keep a pretty low profile-- Buffy has enough on her hands trying to protect those gathered with her in the LA tunnel system, never mind the rest of the world-- but the Reese boys have often been the only thing keeping her alive in this world instead of just living since her ill-timed trip to California cut her off from everyone she's ever loved. Derek and his kid brother remind her a little bit of Dawn, torn from childhood too soon and thrust into a world of death and privation; so if he wants to meet his hero, his hero he will meet. It's the least she can do.
It does not occur to Buffy that Derek (like Xander before him) is still young enough to hold his heroes on pedestals, and not understand the urge to simply connect, no strings attached, with a compatible warm body. Connor-- always Connor even to her, never John-- has a well-known thing for strong women, and a hint of desperate hunger in the depths of his eyes; she knows that hunger, intimately, and indulges it with him in a back room at the party without a second thought.
She isn't, by any stretch of the imagination, Connor's one true love; his eyes tend to linger on darker hair and more curvaceous forms. He isn't hers, either; her heart has long since fallen to dust. But they both understand the burdens of leadership, and expect no more of each other than the other has to give. Buffy hunts with his pack more and more often over the following months, leaving a resentful Derek and the other two Slayers in her group behind to guard their less capable charges, and is one of Connor's acknowledged lieutenants within the year.
He never tells her why his mother trained him so hard for a role in life no normal person could ever have seen coming; she never tells him the true origins of her strength, speed, and experience. (There are no vampires or demons left for visual aids, after all; their survivors all fled this dimension like rats from a sinking ship). Neither of them is metal, and that is all that matters.
In 2015, Skynet's hunter-killers scythe through the Los Angeles area like a swarm of locusts, grabbing or destroying every human they can find. Buffy's sister Slayers fall defending their charges; Kyle is seen being taken near City Hall; and in the aftermath, no one can find any trace of John Connor. For six long years, Buffy, Derek, and Connor's other lieutenants hold the remnants of the Resistance together with duct tape and baling wire; hope is fading, and sometimes it feels as though only habit keeps them going through the motions.
Buffy knows that feeling intimately as well, but is not desperate enough to anchor herself the way she did before. The closest friend she has left is Derek, more than a decade her junior, and he is grieving his little brother as desperately as she'd grieved the loss of Heaven. She refuses to be his Spike; she will not take advantage, and for this, she sometimes thinks, he resents her all the more. He is a man now, pragmatic, quick-tempered and steel willed, and takes more and more of a leadership role in their fight against the machines. She smiles sadly to see it, and spends more time honing her weaponry skills instead. It's taken her twenty years, but she has learned how to use-- and even love-- a firearm at last.
Connor's return in 2021, fresh from the Century Work Camp with an eighteen-year-old Kyle Reese at his side, comes at just the right time to help stitch a widespread human alliance together and provide valuable intel on Skynet's latest movements. From there, it is still an uphill battle, but one fought more and more on their own terms instead of the machines'. They have learned the mechanical skinwalkers' tricks, and picked up a few new tricks all their own.
Power plants and work camps and Skynet fabrication centers fall like rain: just a few at first, then more and more as time rolls forward. Buffy gets the shock of her (current) life in 2023 when they finally secure a reliable transport route across the Atlantic and a fierce, scarred Dawn Summers turns up, head of the largest current European Resistance cell. There are no words for their reunion; they simply sit, pressed against one another, and commune until the sirens go off and the next raid begins. Connor smiles more softly at her that night than he has in all the time she's known him, and Derek's eyes are kinder than they've been in a very long while. It's Kyle, however, whose reaction charms her most. How a kid could grow up in a world as fucked as theirs and still believe in fairytale endings, she'll never know.
By 2027 Derek wears seven patches on his sleeves denoting personal Terminator kills; she has several more; Kyle's good-luck photo of Conner's mother is worn from frequent handling; and Connor himself is on the verge of living up to his Savior title.
Then Skynet invents time travel, and all bets are off.
From the grim look of non-surprise on Connor's face after the discovery is made, Buffy finally realizes what he must have always known. The penny drops: that is why his legendary mother had trained him so hard, preparing him for an apocalypse that no one else believed in.
"Do I know your father?" she asks him, leaning wearily against his shoulder as they stare at the time displacement device.
He says nothing for a long moment, then looks down at her, eyes distant with weariness and fresh grief. "Yes," he says. "Don't ask me who. He's already gone."
She shuts her eyes, then scrubs a hand across her face. "Who else?" she asks. "How many did you send?"
"Does it matter?" He laughs, hollowly. "I don't even know if it'll do any good; I know the timeline had shifted at least three times in my lifetime just from the way Judgment Day kept moving around, but it still came, no matter what we did, and the Terminators always found us. I'd like to believe in the Causal Displacement Hypothesis Skynet was working from; I'd like to believe I can just step through myself and rewrite history without creating a paradox, erasing myself, or leaving this timeline stranded without a leader. But I can't take that kind of gamble."
Buffy already knows that Kyle has been missing since they captured this place; that Derek and several members of his team have disappeared for the second time this week; that the creepy Terminator-chick John inexplicably admitted to his inner circle walked into the facility this morning and never came back out. After all this time, there are still only two things she doesn't believe in: coincidence, and leprechauns. She doubts this set-up is the work of either.
"So you send those you can trust instead, and hope," she says, softly. She's beginning to think she knows why he has called her here.
She could hate him for that, just a little, if she let herself. She's had her world ripped out from under her one too many times for her liking; she's had more than enough of lovers nobly sacrificing themselves and trusting her to continue on without them. But she's forty-six years old now, though she still looks as young as the day Skynet fired the heavens; she doesn't have enough emotional stamina left for that level of drama. At least she never risked having children; not even to save the world would she have been able to leave them behind.
Or Dawn, Buffy thinks, with a pang; then shakes her head at herself. Of course he's already sent her; Connor knows Buffy's sticking points, and Dawn's not above using herself as motivation when she's convinced a particular course of action is right. "Can you at least drop me off near my sister?" Buffy asks, resigned.
"She's the last one I sent through," he says gently, confirming her suspicions. "You should end up just a few hours behind her. I've kept the machine on ever since I sent the first backup crew through this morning; hopefully, that'll guarantee you all end up in the same continuity. You'll be the last one I send; I'll shut the machine down after you go through."
She doesn't ask what'll happen next; she's pretty sure she already knows. Time will change, one way or the other, and she will never see him again. Not this him, not the one she's shared blankets with, fought beside, and dared to believe in despite everything these past thirteen years. And he's leaving her no choice but to go along with it. She leans in for one last kiss, then takes a deep breath and walks slowly toward the machine. Best get it over with quickly.
"Any last instructions?" she asks lightly, trying to soothe the wrenching ache in her chest with thoughts of everyone she's being given a second chance to save.
"You said you had strong allies in that time," he replies. "You know the dangers as well as I do; if you believe they can handle it, recruit them. If Cameron does her job, we'll be in L.A. around that time, eight years younger than we're supposed to be and knee-deep in uprooting Skynet. This isn't the only facility of its kind; sooner or later, Skynet will realize what I'm up to and send more terminators back, more than my family can handle alone."
"First rule is, don't die," she says, through a throat clogged with emotion. "John..."
He cuts her off, hoarsely. "Don't. This is hard enough as it is. Just-- good luck."
Damn him anyway. She takes a deep breath, then steels herself as the tingling energy rises around her.
When Judgment Day fails to arrive on April 21, 2011, John Connor is only nineteen years old. Buffy Summers is fifty, and has known him longer than his own mother. When he turns his eyes to the sky in confused relief and asks what the hell he's supposed to do now, she laughs and tells her younger self to offer him a job.
There's more than one way to become a savior of mankind.