She seemed little more than a curiosity to him, at first. The latest incarnation of Sekhmet-- the Lady of Slaughter; the One Before Whom Evil Trembles-- to be granted admittance to the Field of Reeds. Worthy of respect, but not an uncommon sight for a high priest of Osiris.
Imhotep did wonder if she had successfully made the negative confessions-- much could be excused in the service of the gods; great as his own triumphs had been, so also had been his transgressions-- but little else, at that first meeting. He had his own concerns: while it could not be perfect for him there, not when Anck'su'amun had not joined him, he had resumed his duties to the great god.
The more he encountered her, however, the more intrigued he became. The woman known as Buffy Summers had hair as tawny as the desert sands, and eyes the green of young crops after the Inundation; she wore a dress the color of blood, marked at the breast with rosettes as befit her status, and moved with the grace of a lioness satisfied in the completion of her hunt. She had been buried with no grave goods, but with her last breath had ensured the defeat of an evil that had shaken the very walls of the Duat: a feat worthy of the goddess' daughter. There was a fierceness in her gaze, the banked embers of a defiant spirit that reminded him of Anck'su'namun, or Nefertiri as he had last seen the princess; but at rest now, as he had known neither, glowing with joy in her triumph.
The only thing that seemed to cause the woman pause was the fact that most of her loved ones had not preceded her. Each morning, when the Atet returned from the Underworld, she returned to the gates of the Duat, as if yearning for their presence-- yet each day left again more contented than when she had arrived, murmuring something incomprehensible in her native tongue.
An intriguing curiosity indeed. She smiled with the full force of her ka, and showed neither fear nor admiration of Imhotep's position as High Priest of Osiris. She mangled his name in a different way each time he greeted her, at her every coming and going; and yet each morning he found within himself a greater interest in what she would say next, rather than taking offense at her irreverence.
Time did not pass as swiftly in the Duat as it did in the waking world, stretched into endless moments of golden peace, but it did pass; and it had been many years since his final parting from Anck'su'namun. Since the love he had once believed would shine eternal had revealed itself as clay, not gold, in their grasp. He had been devoted to her for too long to lightly look away. But something about this Buffy... intrigued him.
"Why do you return here, each day?" Imhotep asked, one day when she lingered longer than usual in the precincts of the gods. "You have reached Aaru; it is a time to enjoy the rewards of a virtuous life, not linger on the threshold. Yet if you await the coming forth of a companion-- you seem happier each day you leave alone."
She gave him a wry look in return. "Rather than sad to still be alone?" she replied, smiling apologetically. "I'm not even gonna touch the subject of my virtue, or lack thereof, though trust me-- I'm glad I don't have to live in a world where my mom isn't, anymore. But I had several friends, and a sister, and an ex-- and a whatever Spike was to me. I left Dawn in a pretty precarious situation, and all the foes I was always fighting-- my friends do their best, but they don't have my gifts. Or my curse, I suppose. We always say-- the first rule is, don't die. So every day they're not here...."
"Is a day they honor your memory with their survival," he surmised, inclining his head in acknowledgment.
"And another day they kicked evil's butt. Which is kind of a big deal around here, if I'm remembering my mythology right," she added, gesturing in the direction of the gates from which the solar barge emerged every morning. "A couple of my friends got kinda wordy on the subject, a time or two."
There was a trace of longing in her gaze, he was not surprised to see; she was one who was well acquainted with the enjoyment of battle, though it had been a lesson hard learned. If she sought a place among the defenders of Ra's boat on its journey through the hours of night, he had no doubt she would serve the gods well. "A worthy endeavor."
"What. The wordiness? Or the kicking of evil's butt?" She grinned at him. "You weren't entirely un-evil a time or two yourself, from what I've heard."
It was the closest she'd yet approached the subject; Imhotep considered the interest in her gaze, knowing but not tainted by the anger, disgust, and pity that had animated the one other woman to look him in the eye since he had chosen his love over his pharaoh, and reached to touch his fingertips against the rough white scars that adorned one golden shoulder. He served the god of the dead; much about the unliving yet walking the earth fell under Osiris' purview.
"I have also loved with a love of obsession-- and in so doing, earned a curse that lasted three thousand years. But I was loved back with a love of desperation-- which failed its test in the end. And so I am here, serving the god once more, while Anck'su'namun has returned to the cycle of rebirth until she is ready to face her own judgment."
Buffy caught her breath; and in those life-green eyes, he briefly saw a pain to mirror his. She reached out almost absently, resting the palm of her hand over the center of his bare chest, and the touch burned unexpectedly like a brand. "You can't be who you were, anymore. And whatever their future is-- it won't be at your side. But you are who you are because of them. And that will never change."
"Not in the living world; and not in the next," he replied, struck by her understanding.
Servant of the god of the dead to the protector of those making the journey; ancient priest to youthful Slayer; one grieving yet unbroken spirit to another, it seemed they were finding healing at last in the paradise of the gods. Perhaps even man to woman, as impossible as that had seemed before her arrival.
But before she could pull away-- before he could explore any part of his conclusions-- a terrible power, greater than his own, suddenly reached into the Duat, loudly demanding a boon of Osiris. Buffy gasped, as if struck to the quick by some wound he could not see. And between one breath and the next, the Field of Reeds abruptly housed one less soul.
...Soon to become two, as the skies above immortal Thebes began to darken, shrouded by the desert's reawakened rage.
It took a little while for Buffy to remember after climbing back out of her grave. Where she'd been; what she'd been doing there. Mostly, she remembered the warmth, and the feeling that a great weight had fallen from her shoulders, and only because of the shock of their loss. The pressure of the others' joy in her return was like suffocating in the earth all over again: no less from Dawn and Spike than the rest of the Scoobies, though at least they didn't expect her to thank them for what they'd done.
When the pictures shifted in front of her, she'd almost thought she was hallucinating, at first-- when sandstone faces appeared in the likeness of a lioness over the faces of her friends, she'd told herself it was skulls, and that it was just one more thing going wrong with her. But when she heard about the so-called demon that had come back with her, when she heard about what it had been saying--
What did you do? Do you know what you did? You're like children. Your hands smell of death.
She'd wondered what a certain priest of the god of the dead would think-- and the memories of the place she'd been, the people she'd met there, had flooded back to her.
Tears had tracked down Buffy's cheeks as she thought of her mother; of her little cousin Celia, laughing in the golden sunlight of the afterlife. She wasn't entirely sure they'd seen the same things she did, there. But they'd been there. She'd been loved. And she'd also met... someone else.
It made her wonder. Wasn't there something in the stories of the Egyptian afterlife about the ba being able to manifest as a spirit in the mortal world, during part of the day? If something, or someone, really had come with her... well, wouldn't the person she'd been talking to when she'd been ripped away, someone with significant power of his own, be a good candidate for the spirit?
She was almost expecting it when she heard a voice whisper in her ear, as she crossed the threshold of her bedroom again after a night of patrolling.
You don't belong here. Did they tell you you belonged here?
The misty figure was disappointingly shapeless, when she turned to face it; she didn't know what she'd been expecting, some animal-head figure maybe, or a hieroglyph-y bird thing. But the words it was saying--
Were you offered pretty lies? Or did they even give you a choice?
Buffy gave the spirit a fractured smile, and stepped deliberately closer, reaching out the way she had before, at the gates of the Afterlife. "No. They didn't. I was done, there. You know I was."
The shape undulated away from her hand a little-- and then back again, brushing against her fingertips. Then, slowly, it began to shift its form: into that of a tall man, head shaved bald, well-muscled, dressed in the minimal (and very yummy) ornamented garments of an Egyptian high priest.
They had no right, it said.
She'd known laconic men before; seen that look in other eyes. She easily translated it into I didn't want you to leave yet, in her head; into all this time, I never thought there could be someone else for me, and just when I might be finding out...
Which, huh. Had the transition taught him English? Or had he just been speaking whatever the common language was when he was borrowing other mouths, and she had carried ancient Egyptian back with her from the Duat? Something to think about later, maybe.
"No, they didn't," she said. She was hurting too much to know what she felt, herself, about seeing him here; but that something from Heaven had come back with her, someone who understood-- it was like a little pocket of that incredible warmth had followed her, baking some of the chill out of her bones. "But it's done, now. Can you stay? Or is this going to hurt you, too?"
A rush of noise up the stairs startled her; she ducked and reached for the battle axe tucked under the bed, and came up just in time to see Xander, Anya, and Dawn rush in, looking panicked.
"Wait, what are you guys doing here?" she asked.
"What do you mean, what are we doing here?" Dawn shrieked back, glancing back and forth between her and the ghostly form of Imhotep. "Why isn't it fighting you? What's going on?"
Something like a hot wind seemed to pass through the room, then; the spirit seemed to waver, head cast back toward the sky, and then a vast roaring sound like a thunderous sandstorm wiped out anything she might have wanted to say. Imhotep laughed, a half-mad sound-- and was abruptly solid again, taking a long step forward toward the intruders.
Buffy gasped and stepped forward to set a halting hand on his arm-- and it was warm, even warmer than she remembered. "Wait," she said, fingers trembling against his living flesh.
He stopped, and turned toward her-- and gestured sharply toward the door, pushing everyone else out of the room.
Imhotep's eyes were dark, and deep, and he stared at her as though she were the only thing that mattered in the world.
Maybe she could do this after all, Buffy thought, and stepped forward, trembling, into his arms.