A/N: This is a fanfic focusing on the relationship of Atreyu and the Childlike Empress from 'The Neverending Story' by Michael Ende. Now, those who have read the book will realize I have mixed a few of those facts in with the movie's, though I warn you that most of my inspiration for this and the rest of my Atreyu/Childlike Empress stories are from the movie. Anyway, please enjoy!

Disclaimer: The characters, settings, and overall basis for this story belong to Michael Ende, Wolfgang Petersen, the film company which produced the film, and anyone/anything else affiliated. I own squat, other than the plot in this fanfic.


Goodbye

It had occurred so suddenly, so quickly, he hadn't really been given a chance to breathe. A split second ago, he had been whirling about in the blindness of the Nothing, hurtling towards Earth to become a monstrous lie.

Then, just as abruptly, everything had stopped.

Cairon now found himself perfectly idle and whole in the court of the Ivory Tower. He glanced around, flustered beyond any means, but all was intact. There was no roaring, devil-sent Nothing closing in on them, eating up Fantasia piece by piece; no, everything appeared new and brighter than before. All of it was...born again, it seemed, though he couldn't explain the reason for it in any known form.

Other Fantasians reappeared out of the blue, looking just as flabbergasted as he had been not two seconds before, but he paid them no mind. His eyes were set on something going on inside the Magnolia Pavilion, for its door was strangely open.

He held back a sharp gasp of astonishment as the scene in the Ivory Tower was finally interpretable: the Childlike Empress was on the floor, kneeling beside an unconscious Atreyu, her lovely white dress fanning about her.

She stroked his long, dark hair gently along the curve of his face, gazing at him with a serene, beautiful, yet ultimately unreadable expression. It was one Cairon had never before seen…and he knew all of her expressions by heart…

She didn't turn toward him or show any sign of recognition as he crept closer, eventually kneeling at her side and intensely peering into her face, studying her to try to gain some knowledge of what this new expression could mean.

Somehow, it seemed a private visage, one only meant for Atreyu, conscious or no. It would forever remain indeterminable to anyone apart from the Plains boy, and that was perhaps what scared him the most. What could be so important about this boy that she should create a visage all his own? Could it be that there was more to her calling upon him to save both her and their world than her being omniscient? Could it be…?

A thought flashed across his mind, and it literally halted all activity. He paused mid-breath, eyes widening and mouth agape. No, that couldn't be it… Yet, it was absolutely undeniable…

There was something between them, in this moment and probably many others he had missed. That something was innocent enough for now, but the Empress's expression told him otherwise for the future.

In his panic, his began to think drastically.

They had to send the boy home at once, the second he was able to stand without hobbling. No looking back, no long-winded goodbyes, nothing! It was the only way...

He was stopped in his ramblings as the Empress's unfamiliar expression intensified, her smile widening and eyes brightening. A small murmur below the two of them supplied the answer as to why.

Atreyu was awakening.

The warrior boy's eyes gradually fluttered open, but he quickly raised his still weak arm against the blinding ivory and closed his eyes until they were slits. They soon adjusted, and he let his arm slide back down to the floor, taking in a full breath as he glanced at Cairon and the Empress perplexedly for a split moment. He then proceeded to seemingly not truly see what lay in front of him, his brown orbs instead hardening in concentration.

What had caused him to end up here, on the floor of the Ivory Tower's Magnolia Pavilion? Why couldn't he remember what had happened? More importantly, why were the great Cairon and…

He stopped at once. His eyes widened, and he was quite aware that he had stopped temporarily breathing, but now wasn't the time to dwell on such a matter.

Memories flashed through his mind like lightning bolts, and he remembered: losing Artax, meeting Morla, Falkor, Engywook, and Urgl, seeing the supposed human child in the Magic Mirror Gate, the encounters with the Gmork and the Nothing… Then, the most important one came as if in slow motion: the Empress.

It was then that he registered a warm sensation enveloping his hand, and he directed his eyes there to find smaller, softer, lighter-pigmented hands encasing his. He followed the hands back to their owner and was astonished to see the Childlike Empress before him, perfectly healthy and glowing from within.

She beamed at him and, still holding his hand in one of her own, tenderly reached down with the other to rest on his cheek gently, reassuring him that all was right. With both the humans' and their world, she clarified silently as she just barely noticeably squeezed his larger appendage.

His racing mind instantly calmed, eyes softening after a few seconds.

"You're all right." His voice held a special note to it, swirling above the others, as if conveying a hidden message. The Empress seemed to catch it, however, for she smiled warmly.

"Of course." There was something extra, secret, in not only her voice this time as there had been in his, but her smile, too. It was like…a game of some sort, the suspected messages in a smile or tone of voice…and even before the boy had awoken: a facial expression. Most curious…

Cairon was broken from his meanderings when he realized for how long the two had been gazing at each other. Atreyu seemed fixated by her golden eyes, and the Empress appeared the same with his brown ones.

Unnerved by this, the renowned physician made it a point to hastily and loudly clear his throat, causing the two beings before him to be propelled from their trance-like state and snap their necks in his direction. Receiving the attention he so demanded, Cairon righted himself on his feet and held his head proudly as he spoke.

"Are you able to stand, Atreyu?" Cairon was ashamed to admit he was surprised when the boy's features took on the same determination they had when initially assigned the quest, and he eventually did as requested with support from the Empress, she from both males.

Once on his feet, Cairon nodded as Atreyu looked at him again.

"Do you feel well? Any dizziness? Shaking of the limbs? Anything at all?" Atreyu shook his head; even if he was feeling discomfort, the man doubted he would let it show, judging from the inner strength that resonated from the boy.

"No. I feel fine, thank you." The Plains boy smiled at him, brown eyes gleaming.

Cairon's eyes suddenly caught on to something that nearly made the hair on the back of his neck stand erect: the Empress's hand remained wrapped around Atreyu's upper arm, as if they hadn't noticed it, like it was a minor detail. The subjects in question followed his line of vision and jumped to separate their limbs, but did not bother to mess with the closeness of their bodies, as they were less than two inches apart.

Cairon took a deep breath and fastened his gaze on Atreyu again.

"Then, I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to leave. Go back to your village and hunt the purple buffalo, but I must insist on your leaving at once. I'm sure you understand."

He ensued to give Atreyu a hard look, one that clearly got the Empress's attention from the visage of heated disapproval she shot him. He did not relinquish the stare, though, arrogantly communicating through it that because he was the authority figure, it would be wise if the boy listened.

Atreyu did not fight. He had been raised by each and every member of his tribe, even the children, and had been taught to accept the ruling of his elders, whether they were acting on just grounds or not.

Thus, he nodded in consent and turned to say a few words to the Empress, a proper goodbye at most, at which the Empress had begun to smile. Unfortunately, he was not given the chance as Cairon forcefully and rapidly marched him across the floor until out of the Magnolia Pavilion, though the action was meant to look as natural as possible.

The Empress stayed behind, a sour expression again painting her face; she had been eager to hear the boy's words, see his eyes shine as he spoke of his journey home. She knew what was coming next, but she waltzed to stand beside the doorway nonetheless, awaiting her unspoken cue.

Atreyu stood on the second step from the Magnolia Pavilion's doorway, peering up at Cairon searchingly as he was given his bow and arrow satchel. The young boy seemed to be examining him, the exact way he had the Gmork before the creature had revealed its true self at his call.

Just as the Plains warrior was turning his back, gasps were heard all around. He stopped immediately and slowly swiveled to his previous position to see the Childlike Empress before them all, including a shell-shocked Cairon.

"Atreyu…" She smiled radiantly at him, and he couldn't stop a matching expression from being brought to his face. "Why do you look so sad?" Both grins only grew as she used the familiar phrase, despite the circumstances in which it had first been used.

"I didn't get to say goodbye, Empress." Golden eyes twinkled, and she nodded.

Atreyu cautiously, yet gaily, climbed the ivory stairs for the third time since his quest began, the Childlike Empress just inches from him as he reached the top.

Then, though never having been done or thought possible until that moment, they did something completely unheard of in all of Fantasian history: the Empress was hugged, and she hugged back.

Atreyu's chin rested just below the back of her shoulder blade, his arms and hands staying on her upper back, a good distance from her neck. The Empress's arms wrapped around his higher torso, hands on his back nearly parallel to her body as her chin met his collar bone.

They were respectful enough, Cairon concluded with the slightest urge to pry them apart, and his feelings of ill will were soon to be put into practice as the second installment took place.

They held each other closely, tightly, breathing in the other's unfamiliar scent they somehow swore they knew, yet they were sure they'd never met. They were unaware of the beams spreading across their faces, hatched from the sheer bliss of being in the presence of one another; they were unaware of the way their hearts seemed to be crying out for them to keep the other with them for just a bit longer; they were unaware of the way their faces instinctively buried themselves into the opposite gender's shoulder, subconsciously needing to be ever closer to one another.

The tenderly amazing moment between them was unceremoniously interrupted when Cairon touched the Childlike Empress's shoulder, the one farthest from Atreyu, a firmness in his grip that startled even her.

Breaking immediately, she glanced up at him, golden eyes raging with twenty million different emotions, the majority of which the physician could scarcely recognize. Grasping her hand strongly, she winced as if in pain when she was wrenched from the warrior boy's hold, the hand that had continued to be discreetly intertwined with his successfully disconnecting.

Atreyu gazed into the man's eyes steadily, and Cairon was nearly alarmed into fainting when his orbs revealed the exact sentiments his charge's had, the same intensity behind each of them… He was drawn back when the boy shifted his ever-divulging eyes to meet the Empress's, pausing to dispatch a final surreptitious message, Cairon was sure.

Ending the contact within a second of its beginning with a none-too-restrained huff, Atreyu's eyes trailed back to his, holding back his departure a minute more if only to communicate some truth to him as well. Trying his hardest to resist the effort, Cairon was elated when the Plains child turned from them very slowly, not wishing to leave but knowing he had no choice.

The elder male took no notice of the fact that his Empress's face and eyes were awash with tears, the tiny droplets so precious they were never meant to fall until destiny bid it. Destiny would not have been so cruel.

He took no notice of the fact that the spirit in Atreyu's step seemed to falter as he walked away from the two of them. He did not see the tears bombarding the warrior's visage and brown eyes.

He took no notice of the fact that the subjects who had once admired him were presently grumbling and whispering to each other, eyeing him with distaste as they moved to exit the Ivory Tower and begin their journeys home.

…He took no notice of the fact that he'd been there all night by the time he mindfully awoke, finally hearing and interpreting Atreyu's message as it was meant to be understood:

You see my heart, but you do not let her see it; you know me, but you do not let her know me.

You know she loves me, but you do not let her love me.

You know I love her, but you do not let me love her.

You're too late:

We already know.