A/N: This is a collaborative story that I'm writing with Crystal Persian, whose idea this was originally. In short, it goes as the summary says, the girls fall into the Once-ler's world, and stuff happens. Can't tell you what at this point, that'd just mean spoilers! So please read, enjoy, and let us know what you think of it!
The Once-ler groaned passively as he swiped away the remnants of the townspeople's latest tomato-fest from his hair and hat.
"Man, you'd think they'd get tired of tomatoes!" He grumbled to Melvin, giving the tolerant mule a pat as he walked alongside, keeping in stride as they made their way back to the Once-ler's tent.
"Perhaps carrots? More painful, but less of a mess..." It didn't help matters any that the townspeople hadn't even spared a thought for his Thneed, they had just wanted to see him red in face with tomato paste. They sky itself was reflecting his mood, becoming more violent and grey by the moment. He glanced up.
"Melvin, wha-" Before he could finish the thought, Melvin stopped in his tracks and stared up at the sky as well, screaming as a bolt of lightning slashed into the innocent ground below.
"What the...!" the Once-ler stammered as he stared into the slowly churning grey, electric sky. Not another moment passed before another jagged bolt of blue-white light attacked the ground. It was so close to his feet that he jumped back with a surprised - if not completely terrified - yell and fell to the ground, catching the wheel of his wagon with a shaking hand. Melvin reared and tried to turn away, but the harness kept his options limited. The Once-ler steadied himself and rose to his feet, placing a hand on the back of his frightened mule to calm him. He kept a wary eye on the clouds above, however, and his concentration broke only when a high-pitched squeal met his ears. Make that several high-pitched squeals."Wha...?" he whispered. A small, fast movement caught his eye; the very source of the odd, far-too-audible noise. Three small children were falling from the sky. If he hadn't been seeing it with his own two eyes, he probably wouldn't have believed that there were children falling from the sky, but there they were. Three little girls falling... from... the...
"Holy cow!" Not wasting a second on rational thought, the Once-ler raced forward, determined to catch the three screaming girls before they hit the ground.
Margo stared at the oncoming landscape with a morbid mixture of both innate curiosity and a completely rational sense of terror. Her two sisters were above her, falling as she was and screaming their lungs out. Agnes was the closest, but no matter how many times Margo had tried to get a hold of her hand, she found her youngest sibling just out of her desperate reach. She squeezed her eyes shut. How had it come to this? Why were they here? They were only three harmless, homeless little girls selling cookies out in the streets! The chilling fear that ran up her spine got colder - far more potent than she had ever thought possible as she and her sisters plummeted from the sky. She knew the event would come soon, that final burst of pain would end it, once and for all. She was momentarily surprised that she was still falling, the ground hadn't seemed that far away, but that confusion ceased to exist when the terror consumed her once again. Soon. Soon she'd hit the ground.
Then the moment came. It felt a lot different than she had imagined; perhaps it had been a quick, fleeting death and the fact that she swore she could feel herself being gently lowered into the grass by a pair of arms was a pleasant illusion. If that was so, she refused to open her eyes. Only when she heard Agnes's squeal of delight did she manage to allow herself a momentary glimpse of their surroundings. Dead, they were definitely dead. The place was too beautiful and full of life and colour to be real.
The Once-ler ran as fast as his admittedly long legs would allow, eyes locked on the three little figures getting frighteningly closer by the second. He hardly noticed the sound of Melvin's hooves clattering along behind him, following at the same determined pace. Closer, closer; with every moment that passed he feared the worst, and his heart leapt into his throat as he lunged forwards. He snatched one of the girls out of the air, nearly collapsing on the ground from the sudden weight. Another smaller one was rapidly following the first, and he adjusted his hold on the girl already in his grasp to accommodate for the second's imminent arrival in his arms. He caught her with much less ease than the girl before. He was practically off-balance as it was, but then the third came plummeting down on top of him and he lost his footing completely as she landed heavily on his chest in a blur of pink, knocking him to the ground. He lay panting for a moment, catching his breath as he held all three close. They were curled up and shaking from the ordeal, but their combined weight was getting to be a bit too much. He sat up carefully and set each of them down in the grass beside him, taking a mental note to be a bit more wary of the sky from now on. Who knows? Maybe one day it actually would rain cats and dogs.
A small movement beside him caught his attention, and he watched as the smallest of the three girls uncurled herself, looking about her in surprise. She met his gaze with her very big eyes. After a few short seconds, a wide smile lit up her face and she lunged at him with a happy cry, wrapping her arms around his torso with surprising strength. The first thought that popped into his head was that this girl and Pipsqueak had to be related.
"Eeeee! Thank you! Thankyouthankyouthankyou!" The littlest girl squealed, loosening her death-grip on him and staring at him with those huge, innocent eyes of hers. Yep. Definitely related. The Once-ler allowed a small, awkward, but genuine smile to cross his features as he shook the uncanny similarities from his mind. He patted her on the head, but focused his attention on the other two girls as they began to realize that they were no longer in any immediate danger. The apparently eldest of the three seemed unsure of what to think as she heaved herself up from the ground, absently helping her pink-clad sister to stand as she gaped at the vast expanse of Truffula trees in the midst of the valley.
"Where...?" The eldest began to question before being interrupted by her sister.
"This day so just went from bad to weird... whoa!" She exclaimed as she noticed the very tall man sitting on the ground before her, her younger sister still on his lap with her arms refusing to unwrap themselves from his skinny frame. Margo, taking note of the fact that the tall man was just about as confused as they were, cleared her throat.
"Ummm... Hi there, did you... did you just save us?" she stammered out. She wasn't quite sure what to make of all this... perhaps she was just having a bad dream? Imagining it? It certainly wasn't too bad, she could've found herself and her siblings in some sort of strange fairy-tale land where odd creatures lived and everyone rhymed their words.
She looked at him tentatively as the tall man nodded slowly. When his answer came out as a very brief and quite, "Yes," she got the feeling that he didn't want to trust himself with too many words at the moment. Her observation was enforced when he cleared his throat in slight discomfort, but at that point she didn't care how uncomfortable it made him. She couldn't stop herself from pouncing and wrapping him up in a tight hug. She didn't really notice Edith do the same, and when the man fell over from this sudden barrage of hugging with a surprised little yelp, she just held on tighter.
The Once-ler was not expecting the bombardment, nor did he care for it too much when he was barrelled backwards as the weight of the two other girls combined with the smallest's refusal to let go set him off-balance. He lay there, helpless against the girls' hugging attack. After a while, he patted them each on the back comfortingly, deciding that it was the best thing to do after their previous ordeal. Perhaps they were in shock and had lost their minds?
The minutes passed, and the Once-ler finally decided that he couldn't lie here all day... well, he could, but he had a furry orange meatloaf to find. He was sure the Lorax had something to do with this now that he thought it over, and he was determined to find out how and why. He attempted to rise, but had no such luck. Eventually, he hugged all three of them close, sitting up as he did so to let them know silently that it was about time they let him stand.
Very slowly, the three girls complied, hesitantly releasing their hold on their tall and lanky rescuer. Well, to be completely precise, the smallest of the three was pried away by the eldest and the one in pink deliberately squeezed the air out of him before she let go. After a moment of awkward silence as he stood up, the brown-haired girl cleared her throat.
"I... suppose we should introduce ourselves... um, hi, I'm Margo," she said, holding out her hand. She clearly had a take-charge personality, the Once-ler thought as he took her hand. She half-smiled, encouraging the other two to follow suit and introduce themselves.
"I'm Edith!" The girl in pink stated loudly, as though she thought he couldn't hear her from so high up. The fall hadn't seemed to faze her at all.
"And I'm Agnes," said the smallest girl with a giggle. She gazed up at him from where she stood at his ankle, those frighteningly big eyes reminding him more than ever of the tiny Bar-ba-loot. Talk about déjà-vu. The Once-ler nodded at each of their names, committing them to memory as he offered a small smile in return.
"I'm generally called the Once-ler; nice to meet you three," he said. Agnes and Edith broke into a giggling fit. He simply rolled his eyes good-naturedly as he watched Margo attempt to hide her amusement.
"Generally called?" the eldest girl asked when she finally managed to compose her features. The Once-ler simply nodded. He didn't want these three little girls using the nickname his degrading mother had given him; 'Oncie'.
"You'll probably find out," the Once-ler said. There was some truth to that statement, depending on how long the girl's stay turned out to be. There was no guarantee his mother would visit, but once they'd met the Lorax, there was no keeping his other nickname of 'Beanpole' a secret. Not that he really minded the name.
"Hey, Beanpole!" Speak of the devil...
"Y'all right?" the Lorax yelled over to the Once-ler as he and a large group of Swomee-Swans, Bar-ba-loots and Humming-Fish ran towards them. Agnes and Edith ceased their giggling to stare wide-eyed at the oncoming chaos of colourful fur and feathers. Margo stared as well with a mixture of shock and interest, but her gaze soon began to glaze over as her mind attempted to shut down all trains of thought. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her sisters fall heavily into the grass before she, too, felt the ground rise up to meet her.
The three small girls collapsed, landing with three small thuds in the grass. Was it shock, perhaps, in response to the rather large gaggle of now-familiar animals running towards them? The Once-ler gasped involuntarily, leaning down to check the three girls for any signs of head injuries.
Nothing obvious showed, but he wasn't going to take any chances. Ignoring the questioning eyes of the Bar-ba-loots and Swomee-Swans, he picked Margo, Agnes, and Edith up from the ground with difficulty; proceeding to carefully make his way towards his tent. He felt the Lorax's gaze on him as he walked quickly away, and he called back;
"I'll want an explanation, Meatloaf, I know it's got something to do with you!" After a good five minutes, he arrived at his tent, arms aching with the effort of holding up the three unconscious little girls.
The task of opening the door was one he would've gladly bypassed, but he managed it after several strained attempts. He set the girls down on the bed, rubbing his sore arm muscles and muttering words along the lines of 'keep calm' and 'stop muttering to yourself' and 'do something useful'.
After another minute of pause, he shuffled over to the sink to fill a bowl full of cold water. He had no idea what the water was in aid of, but it seemed like the logical thing to do in this particular situation, so he did it. He rummaged around for a dishtowel, pulling one out from under a pile of Truffula fruit debris and dipping it in the water. A few curious heads poked past the door and gazed into the room, where the Once-ler paced back over to the bed, sitting down beside the girls' sleeping forms. A particularly orange and mustached face appeared a moment later, entering without consent and padding up to the bed.
"So, you gonna tell us what's goin' on?" the Lorax asked, hands clasped behind his back. The Once-ler shot him an angry glare as he wrung out the dishcloth and set it gently on Agnes's forehead.
"So, you gonna tell us what's going on?" he said in return, copying the Lorax's tone.
"What do you mean?" the Lorax asked, his mask of indifference faltering.
"Well," said the Once-ler, "You keep claiming to possess 'powers'. Don't you think it makes just a little bit of sense that it'd be you?"
"I didn't mean any harm..."
"Didn't mean any harm? Meatloaf, they could've died!"
"I know, I know! I just wanted to open up a dimensional portal to prove it to ya. I didn't think there'd actually be anyone on the other side... or that they'd come out of the sky! Usually it's just a small one a lot closer to the ground..." The Once-ler sighed. There was no point to this. He was still a bit angry and frustrated, but there wasn't anything he could do about it now. He continued to pat the cool cloth over the girls' foreheads as the Lorax watched, concern evident on his face. At the very least, the furry meatloaf was remorseful, and the Once-ler took comfort in that simple act of emotion. After a slightly awkward silence in which the Once-ler went about his business and the Lorax watched, the furry orange guardian spoke up.
"So, uh, Beanpole?"
"Why didn't you just have Melvin carry the girls?"
"I... look, I panicked, okay?"