The Once-Ler pauses at the edge of the valley, lingering just inside the line of truffula trees, the dark scowl on his face momentarily becomes something wary. Then he squares his shoulders, puffs his chest out, and steps out of the shade of the trees.
Instantly, he feels something like a fist twisting deep inside him and pulling. It pulls and pulls and pulls until there's a snap within and he stumbles, tripping over his bare feet. Then he shakes his head and keeps walking.
"I'm leaving," He growls, fists clenched at his sides as stomps away from the valley, "And that's that."
He doesn't notice the dark hair behind his ears lighten as fingers of gray creep into the black.
"And where exactly d'ya think you're going?"
The is gruff, coming from the shadows of the truffula trees. The Lorax stands there, arms crossed, brow furrowed as he watches the former guardian take the first few steps away.
"I'm leaving, what's it look like?" The Once-Ler mutters, keeping his back to the forest as he walks a few more paces away. The expression on his face is a dark one, a mixture of anger and frustration. It's suddenly enhanced by the lines that stretch underneath his eyes,
"You got a problem with that, Meatloaf?"
"Well, seein' how I made it damn clear you couldn't leave the valley, yes." The Lorax growls. There is something darker beneath his expression as well, obvious worry, but it's masked by the bristling of orange fur,
"What part of you're bound t' it didn't you get? You're centuries old and the forest is what brought ya here in the first place. If you leave, you break t' deal, and that means the conditions are off and you'll fade."
"Oh really!?" The Once-Ler snaps, spinning around to glare at the Lorax, "Well then maybe that's a good thing! All I've done is cause trouble for this valley! I've destroyed it over and over and over again! Why did you even bother to bring me back!? What good has that done, huh!?"
The man who left the valley was not the same man yelling at the Lorax now. Instead of appearing to be in his early twenties, he looks like he's in his late thirties, pushing forty. There's streaks of gray in his hair and weary lines in his face that weren't there before.
"I'll tell you how much good it's done! It hasn't! Good-bye!" He spins back around, waving a dismissive had into the air, "Farewell! See you never! I'm out!"
"Oh for the love of--are you even listening t' yourself!?" The Lorax sputters as he stomps after the former forest guardian, "You've done loads of good! The animals love ya! The forest came back! You've gotten this place protected, you've been as careful as you could! Ya certainly did better than I did when I was your age!" The creature rants, "You've done fine, ya just made a mistake! Everyone makes mistakes, we've been over this!?"
"Oooohh, the animals love me, do they!?" The Once-Ler huffs. His next words come out through gritted teeth as he feels that pull and snap again, the rebound vibrating into a deep ache in his bones, "Then why do they keep running away? I've tried everything to make it up to them but they just keep
they're still just scared of me!"
His shoulders slump, weary, and he's looking older and older with each step he takes, the strain of it showing in the tension of his back and the way he's hanging his head,
"A mistake. After about fifty of them? How many more will it take until I do something so terrible even the forest can't bounce back from it? It's better this way."
"They're animals, you idiot, of course they won't get over it right away! We've been over this, nature takes time!" The Lorax snaps, "That doesn't mean it won't heal--don't you get that? Nature's so much bigger than you, it's so much bigger than both of us! It'll bounce back, it always does, and you thinking you're big enough t' somehow change that says a lot about your stupid ego!"
Here he stops, stamping a foot on the ground, paws clenched into fists, "It's not about the mistakes you make, idiot, it's about owning up t' them! You were doing that and that's all anyone can ask! That's all I fucking asked for! I know it seems big, but you gotta keep trying! You can't just walk away from this sort of thing!"
The Once-Ler pauses and looks over his shoulder and the expression on his face is an unreadable mixture of things; like he can't decide whether he wants to be angry or sad or hurt or lost or frustrated or all of them at once. His hair is so shot with gray now that there's hardly any black left and dark stubble has coated his cheeks and jawline.
But he doesn't turn back to the forest.
He appears to mull over the Lorax's words for a long, silent moment. And then his face hardens and he growls,
"Watch me walk away from it."
And with that, he turns away towards the horizon and stumbles forward, tripping once again as his bones creak and that tearing feeling comes again. He knows where this will go, he's well aware of it, it's just that he doesn't care.
The Lorax watches for another moment, then lets out a sputter, "Seriously!? What, are you just gonna go out and listen t' Linkin Park now!? How old are you, fifteen? 'Cause that's how you're acting Mister Five Hundred Or So!"
He waits another moment, watching the Once-Ler walk away. Then he lets out a curse.
Of course the gruff thing isn't going to work. There's no helping it now, and if anything, he's well aware he's partially to blame. In the end, you can't always leave things unsaid, whether you like it or not.
And so with another curse the orange creature charges down the hill and tackles the now elderly man,
"You get back here right now, you overdramatic twat!"
The Once-Ler lets out a surprisingly high-pitched yelp for someone who looks almost seventy, loses his balance, and sends himself and the Lorax tumbling head over heels down the hill.
He skids to a halt at the bottom, lying in a sprawled heap in the grass that was definitely not as green as the stuff in the valley. His trip down the hill has aged him even more. He looks well into his eighties now, a thick white mustache and bushy eyebrows nearly obscuring his face, and his missing hat revealing a thin wisp of white hair. Between his ill-fitting clothes and his bare feet and the distraught expression on his face, he makes a very sad picture indeed.
Two tiny fists reach out to grab the older man's collar, the creature on his chest pulling his head off the ground, "Listen here, idiot!" The forest guardian snaps, mustache blown by the force of his voice, "Everyone messes up! Everyone! Humanity does it, the barb-ba-loots do it, I've done it! You are not some sort of magical fedora-wearing special snowflake just because your mistakes have some weight t' them! No, they won't be fixed right away, and I know how that feels, trust me on that one! I do know, I know that so damn much, and ya' can't just give up because things need some goddamn time!"
"I picked you out t' be a forest guardian for goddamn reason, don't you get it? Thsi forest needs you, it always has and it always will! The animals need you! I needed you, why do you think I brought you back!? I know it's not easy, it never is, but you gotta believe me!"
"I ALREADY FORGAVE YOU, DON'T YOU GET THAT!?"
The Once-Ler remains sprawled on his back in the grass, staring up at the Lorax with wide eyes. He's completely still, just staring. And then, after a long, silent moment, he bites his lip in a way that seems too young for his old frame and closes his graying eyes against the tears that seem to want to creep out of them.
When he speaks, it's in a low voice he's trying very hard to keep from shaking,
"Why do you keep giving me these second chances
His friend and mentor stares down at him for a moment, still bristling with something akin to anger. Then his shoulders slump and he releases the man, lets him drop back into the grass.
"'Cause if anyone deserves them, it's you, idiot. Besides you're my
" He trails off, then gives a snort and rubs at his pink nose, "You matter, okay? You matter t' me. A lot. Why would I try so hard with you if I didn't have some kind of faith in ya?"
There's a long silence again where the Once-Ler isn't quite sure how he should feel, how he should take those words.
Then, very slowly, he pushes himself up with a creak of old bones, hesitates for the briefest of seconds, and then wraps his long arms around the Lorax and pulls him into a hug. A sniff and the Once-Ler's not--he's definitely, totally, completely not--crying,
"Thanks, old friend, for having faith in me."
The Lorax blinks in surprise as he finds himself abruptly enveloped in long arms. Then he shakes his head and hugs the old man back.
"You're welcome. 'M sorry for letting you know sooner. People deserve reminders, and I ain't always the best at giving them. So yeah
sorry about that."
These words said, the Lorax releases the Once-Ler somewhat awkwardly and hops off of him, "Anyway!" He declares, puffing out his orange chest and looking away, "C'mon. We gotta get you back t' the forest, you'll be right as rain and back t' normal in no time. Let's go."
The Once-Ler can't help the smile that spreads across his face as he clambers slowly to his feet. He has forgotten, over his many long years as a youthful guardian, what it was like to feel age. It aches and makes him shudder but that smile still remains as he hobbles after hte Lorax.
However, the closer they get to the forest, the straighter the Once-Ler stands. his hair darkens and grows longer even as he sweeps up his fedora and places it back on his head with all the dramatic flare, his gray eyes become sharp and blue again, and his stride picks up its usual bounce and strut.
"Sssssooo," His voice is young and crisp, alive and bright once more, "Does this mean you're going to make me a forest guardian again?"
"No," The Lorax's tone is completely flat as he replies, "I said a week, we're stickin' with a week. And you still have t' help me fill out all that paperwork."
"Whhhaaattt? Are you serious?" The Once-Ler all but whines, shoulders slumping down dramatically, "Haven't I been punished enough already? Errggg, you're such a stick in the mud
But there's a familiarity in the whining, in the banter, and that's another step in the right direction. So it's enough, for however little it is, it's enough for now.