The Three Strike-Point-Flag System

A Lorax Fanfic Series by Digitaldreamer

VII: Don't Give Up at Halftime

Phew, finally!

Sorry this one took so long folks- as I mentioned before, finals are a bitch. But hey, things are finally relaxing a bit, so here's chapter seven. On that note, this one's our halfway point, so yaaay! You know what that means!

That's right, everything after this is gonna be horribly depressing. Goody! I hope you all enjoyed the fluff because it's alllll downhil from here. On that note, have some Once-ler past, some foreshadowing and the most bromance to ever bromance.

"It's empty in the valley of your heart, the sun it rises slowly as you walk…"

The Once-ler's voice came out in a murmur that was almost more breath than voice, a stark contrast to its usual booming quality. Long fingers traced their way across guitar strings, plucking them absently with seemingly no obvious melody in mind. He faded between half-formed evocative choruses and simple notes, fingers occasionally twisting an awkward squeak from the strings. This would result in him shoving the long neck of the instrument down so he could reach a notebook on the floor, where he would cross off several lines of something or other before returning to his regular position.

The sounds of his work thrummed through the otherwise quiet tent, punctuated by the occasional snore from a variety of snoozing animals. Most of the valley creatures were early to bed and early to rise, the Once-ler had long ago accepted that if he wanted to sleep in his own bed, he wasn't going to sleep at a reasonable hour ever again. Fortunately, he didn't seem to mind the fact that he'd surrendered his pillows for the wood floor tonight, his only discomfort coming in the form of the occasional splinter.

Again his fingers traced across the guitar strings, plucking them absently for a moment before settling into a peaceful sort of strum. After a few seconds of this, there was a hum from the bed. "Sounds good."

There was another squeak from old guitar strings as the Once-ler blinked. His eyes flicked to the furry orange lump nested into his old quilt, brow furrowing. "Really?"

This elicited a snort from the Lorax as he rolled over, claw flopping lazily across his stomach. "Yeah, really. Sounds good, you should work wit' that instead of the stupid Thneed song."

He received a soft chuckle at this, the young man keeping his tone quiet so as to avoid rousing the swomme-swan snoozing on his desk. "Ballads don't exactly sell anything, Meatloaf," he murmured as he flipped a page of the notebook.

"So what?" The Lorax gave a yawn and scratched himself below the chin. "Just do it anyway. People would like it."

Now the Once-ler was just looking confused, brow furrowing. "Are you okay? You're actually being nice to me. You're not sick or something, are you?"

Green eyes flicked up to him before the creature on the bed gave an eyeroll. "Don't be stupid. I've been around for a long time, I'm not gonna sit here and ignore talent when I see it. Nothing personal, just how it is." With those words the Lorax flopped back and rolled onto his side, as if sealing the conversation closed.

After a moment of silence, however, the Once-ler let out another mumble. "…Really?"

"Oh for the love of-" The Lorax gave a growl as he sat up. "I told, you, yes, it sounds great. It sounds fan-flippin'-tastic, you're a talented kid, now stop fishing for compliments and let me-" Here the creature paused, brow furrowing as he finally met the young man's eyes. "…What?"

At these words the Once-ler blinked before his blue eyes dropped to the wood floor, as if he realized he'd been caught doing something wrong. "Sorry, sorry," he muttered as he rubbed his arm. The cool spring night abruptly felt quite warm. "It's just… no one's ever said anything like that to me, that's all."

"Seriously?" Those furry eyebrows were pressed together into this odd, poofy yellow line now, the Lorax's expression baffled. "Then what's with the ridiculous sense of over-importance? I just thought someone had gone and told ya you were special too many times as a kid or whatever."

The Once-ler outright laughed at that as he gave the strings of his guitar another strum. "Hardly," he said, and the bitterness in his tone was like bile at the edge of a deep, unrelentingsea. "I don't think my mom has praised me in at least fifteen years- no one has. Usually it's just reminders that I'm useless and then yelling at me to go fix the Wash for the millionth time."

"…That's awful."

Those blue eyes blinked in surprise before the inventor shook his head. "N-no, I mean… she means well. She got different after dad left, that's all, and she was just…" The Once-ler trailed off, then abruptly let loose several strums of his guitar, a harsh, grating note that stirred several hummingfish. The young man winced and crouched down over the instrument, as if suddenly aware there was no way for him to cover those awkward words up with another show.

And in a way it was, because suddenly the Lorax's eyes were on him. The Once-ler felt like he'd just been put on stage and had forgotten whatever routine he had planned. "What happened with your dad?" There was the question, the go ahead, and it was like hanging over the edge of those dark, bile-infested waters and all he wanted to do was back as far away as he could.

But when he opened his mouth, the wave came anyway, unbidden and tasting of coffee grounds and grit.

"He…" The young man paused, then gave a sigh as he reached up to brush his bangs out of his eyes. "Dad could do anything, you know? He was an inventor and a musician and a salesman and he just did everything. He always said he was gonna make it big and get the whole family out of the middle of nowhere- me, mom, everyone. I think after her first husband my mom was glad to listen to anything that would give her some kind of hope."

Here he paused, fiddling absently with his guitar. "But my dad never made it. He tried loads of things- The Untoaster, the Nuclearator, the Thing-a-Majig… he used what little money we had making the things and producing records and in the end it never amounted to anything. My mom was stuck working constantly to try to keep us afloat and she got more and more fed up… and well, one day he finally just couldn't deal with her and left, I guess."

A heavy sigh bubbled up from his throat and his fingers slid across the strings of the guitar, leaving an awful squeak in their wake. "To this day I don't really know why. I think it was my mom… she just got so bitter, and he was so optimistic and I just think he got sick of her. Or maybe he got sick of me- I really don't know. But mom got sick of me, so it would make sense that he would too." His smile was plaster-of-paris fake by this point, tinged with a bitterness ordinarily held back by glittering ideals.

He didn't have to look to know the Lorax's eyes were on him, could imagine the furrowed brow well enough. "What d'ya mean, got sick of you?"

There was the question, and the young man winced because he wasn't comfortable with just how easily these words were hitting home tonight. Add that to those bitter words from his own mouth and he felt a strange mixture of guilt and panic as he looked back to the creature on his bed. "I-I can't say for sure," he insisted, lips twitching like arms trying to hold back a dam. "I mean, I could be wrong. But I look just like my dad and he and I were always really similar, and I think my mom just can't stand being reminded of him. I mean, not that I'm helping anything- the guitar and the hat were his, so she wanted to get rid of them. I said no- and it's not like I don't get why she doesn't like them. Of course being reminded of him would hurt, I don't blame her! But just…" He let out another tense breath before reaching up to rub the back of his neck.

"My dad taught me so much. He was gone a lot, but when he was he always told me I was the man of the house- not Brett and Chett, me. He always told me to watch after mom, and I just… I know he's not coming back. But I promised… that's what brought me out here in the first place." God, there were so many words tonight, way too many, but still there were coming, rushed now, as if the dam had shattered and words were spilling out of his great big mouth like water. "I-I don't think she gets that, that's all- my mom, I mean. I think she's just trying to make sure I don't end up like my dad and that's why she keeps reminding me I'm useless and my ideas won't amount to anything, but I just want to make her happy. I just want to see her smile again and maybe she'll like me again but she's probably right and I probably won't and she…"

The Once-ler finally trailed off, letting out a shaky breath. His throat, once so open, now felt constricted as he shifted his gaze to the golden yellow light of the ceiling. Right, this was embarrassing- why couldn't he have gone and frozen up earlier? "I know she means well. I know dad did too. But sometimes I think maybe neither of them ever liked me. So maybe I…"

At last he fell silent, fingers tightening into a death grip on the neck of the guitar, gaze locked on the ceiling as he fought to swallow. The silence seemed to stretch on forever, heavy and awkward, and all he could think was how this was the first time he'd spoken of it in years- and it was to the Lorax of all creatures. He expected mocking, because that was how this relationship worked- how any relationship for him worked. Smile, laugh, trade barbs to keep it all at arm's length, and never say a negative word that could be used against you.

"No parent could ever hate their kid, Beanpole," The Lorax had finally broken the silence, and his voice was so gentle that the young man had to blink in surprise. "I'm sure your mom has issues and your dad did too- but hate you? I doubt that."

Blue eyes shifted from the ceiling to meet the creature's gaze, brow furrowing in confusion. He'd expected mocking, not for the Lorax to look so surprisingly sad and understanding. The Once-ler blinked again before that familiar smile flicked into place for a moment, unbidden, like a mask. "And how would you know that, Mustache? What, do you have a bunch of fuzzy little nature spirit pups that you never mentioned?"

The scowl came back as well and the Lorax quirked a brow at him, a low growl bubbling up from his throat. "Oi, I'm tryin' to be understanding, cut that out. For the record, no, I'm the one and only Lorax, thanks. I've just seen enough to know some things, that's all."

"Uh huh," The young man chuckled and shook his head. Silence fell over the tent again, and his shoulders slumped with the weight of it. "Maybe she doesn't hate me," he murmured. "But she was right. I'm a failure after all, just like dad."

He got a pillow thrown at his head for that, eliciting a yelp as the Once-ler grabbed the pillow and forced it down in time to meet a green-eyed glare.

"I draw t' line at at pity parties. The last thing ya are is a failure, now cut that out," the Lorax growled, jabbing a claw in his direction.

The young man blinked in surprise again before his brow furrowed, gaze going to the pillow in his hands. "But… you were right. That's good for you, isn't it?" he said as he let the thing drop and slide across the slightly chipped surface of his guitar. "I mean… the thneed isn't catching on. It's stupid- the stupidest thing I've ever come up with, and trust me, that's saying something."

"If you keep tha' up, I'm gonna hit with you another pillow," his friend snapped. "Now look, we've been over this. Not that I care about the thing, but you're just tryin' too hard. Give it time." His words felt final enough, but the Once-ler still had the air of an absurdly tall kicked puppy. The creature watched him for a moment, then gave a sigh before reaching up to pinch the bridge of his nose. "For the love of… look, even if the thneed don't work, you've got other ideas, right? Just keep tryin', I'm sure someone's bound t' want a coconut cream pie that's also a sweater or whatever else ya come up with."

"Maybe…" The Once-ler's tone was tentative, unsure, shoulders hunched far more than necessary as he set the pillow aside.

"Oh, shush, you're fine. The waterslide was a good one, I'll admit it," the Lorax huffed as he sat up on the bed. Apparently he was determined to nip this depression in the bud- that, or he was sick of the self-depreciating 'Nobody Needs a Thneed" after it had become such a hit with the hummingfish. "Besides, even if the inventing thing never pans out, you've got other stuff. I mean, even I can tell you're a whiz with the music thing, right? Why not just become a musician or whatever?"

This elicited a bitter laugh from the Once-ler, plucking absently at the guitar strings again. "Oh yeah, I'll go from inventor to traveling street musician. That's a gig that pays well. If I'm really lucky maybe I can send my mom absolutely nothing."

The Lorax snorted, exhaled hair sending his mustache every which way. "All right, so it wouldn't be glamorous. You never know though. You just gotta keep trying, that's all."

Again came that sigh. "Maybe. I dunno. All I know is this isn't working and I'm not quite sure what I'll do when it finally falls through. I dunno if I can handle facing mom when I head home…" The inventor winced as he rubbed the back of his neck, his mother's words abruptly all too clear in his mind. To be subject to that again, forever a reminder of his father's supposed stamp of failure upon their lives, that almost seemed like too much to bear.

There was a silence that stretched through the tent, heavy with the idea of home and punctuated only with the occasional bar-ba-loot snore. Finally the Lorax spoke up, oddly quiet and lacking in his usual bluster. "Well, y'know… ya could always stay."

"What?" The inventor's gaze went from the battered guitar to the nature gaurdian, eyes widening.

The Lorax huffed as he pointedly looked away, shifting awkwardly on the bed. "You heard me. I mean, you've kept your promise and you ain't causing any harm- besides, your record's pretty good, even with all the flags on it. It's been kinda nice to have a helping hand around here anyway… and besides, I doubt Pipsqueak'd let you leave anyway," he added, gesturing to the creature nestled into the blankets beside him. "Kid adores ya- dunno why, but there you go. Just stick around."

The Once-ler gaped at him for another moment, clearly still shocked. He then cleared his throat, reaching down to awkwardly adjust his guitar strings. "I… uh… um… well, admittedly it's a good offer, I like it here. But what am I gonna do about money? I can't just live off of truffula fruit."

He recieved a snort at this. "I didn't say ya had t' give up on your dreams, genius. Keep inventin' and sellin' or whatever- you'll just have a home t' come back to, that's all."

At these words the Once-ler felt his throat constrict, felt abruptly impossibly aware of the warm golden glow of the lamp and the scratchy wood floor beneath him. Everything seemed clear and crisp and amidst it all was that odd mixture of surprise and contentment. The term "home" was one he was used to, certainly, but to have it actually mean something- a place with someone who cared for him and liked him for who he was and wanted him there -that was something else entirely.

"…Okay," he finally murmured, the word so small and quiet it seemed to lack confidence in its own existence. The young man cleared his throat and tried again. 'Okay," he said with a nod, a tentative smile spreading across his face. "I'll stay."

He could have sworn he saw that mustache actually perk up a fraction. "Really?"

"Yeah," The Once-ler nodded, his voice going stronger as he spoke, the decision seemingly cementing in his words. "I'll stay- it seems like you need me anyway. I mean, seriously, what kind of wild animals actually sleep outside?" He snickered a bit at this before he gave a yawn and stretched his arms over his head. He then moved to push his guitar aside, setting it lovingly against the wall. "Besides, I'm sure you'd miss me."

"Ey, don't go making assumptions," The Lorax growled. He started out puffing up like an angry squirrel, only to abruptly give a loud, long yawn. He then shook his head, rubbing at drooping eyes. "I still don't like you, I just recognize talent when I see it. Just 'cause I speak for them don't mean I share everybody's freakish fascination with your hipster crap. They probably all jus' like you 'cause you're so damn tall, it's like a freak show."

"Sure, sure," His charge drawled as he gently nudged a swomme-swan nestled in his pajama drawer aside, being careful not to wake it. "I'm still not sure what I'm gonna do about the thneed," he finally admitted, brow furrowing as he tugged at a loose pajama pant leg in an attempt to free it. "I mean, maybe it'll catch on but I doubt it."

This elicited a groan from the Lorax as he flopped back onto the bed. "This is what I get for sayin' anything- for the last time kid, I don't wanna hear about your damn thneed. You're lucky your record's good, Everest- now shut up, it's midnight anyway."

"I dunno if I can keep going with the town either, I'm kind of infamous there," the Once-ler continued as if he hadn't heard as he finally tugged the pajama bottoms free. He held them for a minute, expression pensive, then let out a sigh before a surprisingly calm smile flitted into place. "Maybe that's all right after all."

"Eh?" The Lorax's questioning tone was heavy with sleep, the creature clearly drifting off as he nestled into the aged comforter.

"The thneed… maybe it's okay if it doesn't catch on," The Once-ler said as he pulled his pajama shirt free as well, reaching over to pat the swan absently on the head so as to lull it back to sleep. "There's always something else…. it still kind of sucks that the thneed failed though. I mean, I thought for sure it'd be what everybody needs…" His expression became a thoughtful frown as his eyes flicked to the fluffy pink thing, which a bar-ba-loot was currently using as a pillow.

"Maybe it is," The Lorax grumbled. "Jus' give it time."

He received a small chuckle at that as the young man glanced back to the creature snoozing on the bed and flashed a knowing grin. "You've got an awful lot of faith in me for an angry furry cheez-it who doesn't like me."

"Told ya already, just tellin' like it is- I still dun' like you," the furred creature grumbled. "Now shut up before I bring t' wrath of nature down on your skinny butt."

The Once-ler outright laughed at this, shaking it head. Then he gave a nod and puffed out his chest. "Well, you're right. I can't give up yet- I'll give it one more day. If it doesn't work, I'll just come back here and stay for awhile." With those words he peeled off his white undershirt and began to change, humming cheerily under his breath.

"Joy." The Lorax's tone was flat as he rolled over. "I can hardly contain my excitement. Now shut up and let me sleep, this heart t' heart thing is over."

"Heart to heart implies you have one," The Once-ler drawled teasingly as he finished buttoning up his pajama shirt. When he received no reply, he let out a chuckle and stepped over a pile of snoozing hummingfish to flip off the lamp. Just before doing so, however, he paused to glance over his tent.

Hummingfish lay in piles on the floor and curled up in what had once been drinking glasses. He could spot several swomme-swan nests forming on top of the fridge and the various lamps, and he swore he saw a bar-ba-loot paw poking out of a cupboard door. His bed was already so full of critters that he had no idea how he was going to fit into it himself- that was what had demoted him to guitar-playing on the floor in the first place. He could see Melvin snoozing outside, his head dipping low, the soft noise of his snores joining the crickets outside. The glow of the lamp seemed fitting, a golden warm contrast to the comfortable cool of the night air.

It was chaos. But perhaps it was home, and that was worth something.

"One more day," the Once-ler repeated to himself before he flipped off the lamp light. One more day before he let it go, one more day before he had to admit defeat and start all over again, one more day of what was likely to be more tomato throwing and yelling. It was one more day and admittedly the idea hurt, the idea of rejection twisting with the familiar promise of failure and that hope of mom's acceptance forever dangling just out of reach.

But he'd already found acceptance somewhere, and that enough for now.