"I wasn't gone or nothing. I was dead, and so was Artax." Atreyu stared at Bastian across the fire in the midst of the plain. His people surrounded them, quiet and serious as his voice. "You brought us back."
His gaze flickered downward to the auryn around Bastian's neck.
"But Fantasia..." Bastian started, only to be stopped by Atreyu shaking his head.
"Fantasia fell to the Nothing," Atreyu told him. "I didn't." He stood, bow natural in his hand in a way he'd been disallowed on his quest to find Bastian. "I was dead," he repeated. He shot Bastian another intent look. There was something new and less carefree in his gaze and manner than he'd once been known for. He glanced toward Artax then back to Bastian. "Thank you."
Bastian couldn't have helped but wished back Artax. He'd cried in the Swamp of Sadness as well. But he was just a little boy. He didn't have words to tell Atreyu anything that wouldn't feel off. So he nodded.
Atreyu seemed to accept that, smiled before he headed into his tent.
Bastian stared into the fire. He'd wished to meet Atreyu and the plains people, the hero of the story he'd been unable to walk away from. Finally, he sighed and went to join Atreyu in the tent on the pallet he'd been offered.
In the morning, the men in the camp saddled up their horses. Atreyu's grin seemed to wipe out everything he'd said the night before. "Come, Bastian." He gestured eagerly. "It's time to hunt."
Bastian sat up, rubbing sleep from his eyes. "I don't know how."
Atreyu's eyebrows came up, amused. "Then come and learn. You don't learn how to quest and adventure from inside the tent."
"What about breakfast?"
"Come on," Atreyu answered, but he when he led Bastian out, it was to a stream to wash his face, then to the horses.
The horse shied at Bastian's hesitant touch.
"Not that side," Atreyu corrected, drawing him around to the other side and helping him up. He eyed Bastian's seat critically. "You have a lot to learn."
"Yeah." Bastian shifted uncomfortably, making his horse snort impatiently. "I don't know how to do this."
Atreyu didn't answer Bastian's uncertainty, just guided him how to carry himself and to hold his reins. "The horse knows how to hunt. He'll follow along."
Artax shoved his nose into Atreyu's back. He laughed and turned from Bastian to his horse, to hold his friend close. He'd missed Artax like his own arm or heart. How could he explain that everything had been temporary for Bastian, but there were still holes in Atreyu where his confidence and wholeness used to reside. There was still loss inside him.
He mounted Artax with the ease Bastian was missing and held himself back from the sheer joy of the hunt, the familiar weight of bow and quiver, of the chase on Artax's back over the endless plains of his homeland, stayed slow to guide Bastian and teach him how to ride with the men around them.
"Trust your horse. Trust the auryn."
Bastian flushed, and Atreyu wondered for just a moment whether he realized how the auryn could guide him, not just fulfill the wishes that had raised Fantasia's lands out of nothingness into something and brought Falkor and Atreyu back from the pain and emptiness of death itself.
"Come." He flew forward, Artax neighing with the pure pleasure of releasing themselves to the speed they'd known for so long before the quest that brought Bastian to their side.
His bow was up, arrow drawn, and he let out a whoop as the buffalo came into sight.
This was right, this was everything he'd been missing, but even this could not complete the empty places inside as he and his people brought down a purple buffalo, bellowing into the grass. He kept Bastian close, included. There were things he had not yet found words for, reasons he was glad the human had wished to see him. Atreyu had his own reasons for wishing to see Bastian.
"Empress?" Atreyu woke from the new awakening in the chamber he'd died in. "What happened?"
But he remembered then, even as the question left his lips. He remembered the pain searing through him as he fell in the cracking Ivory Tower, head cracking against the ivory as life faded away into crimson.
In the instant between life and death, he'd hoped for the afterlife promised by his people, the Great Hunt, riding on Artax's back because no warrior of the Plains People would ever be separated from his horse after death, not the one he'd trained from a colt and held through pain and comfort in the cold nights on the Plains in their buffalo hide tents.
For a moment, a moment only, he was free, untethered from life and Fantasia into the Hunt and there was Artax running toward him before it all faded away into... Nothing.
"Empress?" He was alive. He remembered the afterlife, then the Ivory Tower whole around him and her face, healthy instead of red-rimmed eyes and the pale skin she'd had when he saw her last.
"Atreyu." The Childlike Empress smiled at him with a benevolence that warmed his insides through. "Thank you."
Bastian exulted in the feelings washing through him as he lived with the Plains People for three heady days, no time limit upon his wish just yet before he had to return home to the real world. His father had asked him to keep his feet on the ground, but this was so much better. He didn't want to go home. He wanted to learn more about adventures, and Atreyu seemed willing to teach him, his laugh as easy as it was before he'd learned the fate of his whole world was on his shoulders.
It seemed like he knew Atreyu better than he otherwise could. He'd read the book and been inside Atreyu's head, but it was this that finally came out between them in the tent after they retreated from yet another evening fire.
"I saw you," Atreyu said as he pulled his tunic over his head and dropped it in its place to wait for morning. "In the mirror gate at the Southern Oracle."
Bastian remembered that with a start. "I still didn't believe it then," he admitted.
Atreyu studied him, a furrowed, drawn look to his face. "Are you...?" He stopped then, question swallowed down quietly, eyes widening.
The gate showed your true self, Bastian suddenly remembered. "Maybe the rules were different," he offered. "I'm not you. I could never be like you."
Atreyu laughed, but it was not so carefree. He dropped down and sat loosely on his pallet. "You are a hero, Bastian," he said plainly. "You saved our world."
He'd called a name.
"I am a little boy," Atreyu said even more quietly. His expression closed. He turned away and stretched out beneath his blanket.
Bastian didn't know what to say. He curled up beneath his own blanket. If he were a true hero, he would go home and find some way to save his father, maybe himself.
"Make both the worlds well," Atreyu murmured into the darkness, echoing the words of the Childlike Empress before she'd left Bastian altogether.
Imagination must come from the human world, then be returned to it again that both worlds could be well. He couldn't just keep his feet on the ground, let the books and stories be lost to video games and serious work.
Bastian wondered what he would see if he looked in the mirror gate on the way to the Southern Oracle. "How?" he asked finally.
It was a long moment before Atreyu's voice came again. "You have the auryn. You represent the Empress now."
Bastian clutched it a little tighter around his neck, the warmth of it reassuring against his skin. He wished... He wished.