Forty years later

It was a bright, sunny Thursday afternoon in Thneedville, and for thirteen-year-old Theodore Wiggins, that could only mean one thing:

Time to pay the Once-Ler a visit.

It was a bit of a tradition that they'd started up, ever since they'd first met each other during the young boy's quest for a tree about a year ago. Every Thursday, Ted would ride his scooter down to the far end of town to pay a visit to his new friend; ocassionally, he would bring presents along with him, like a jumbo bag of marshmallows or a brand-new bottle of mapel syrup for pancakes, or yarn for his knitting. During each of his visits, he would help the old man water the new baby Truffula trees sprouting in the ground, and take care of any odd jobs around the Lerkim that needed attention. And when the work was all done, the two of them would sit on the front porch and gaze at the colorful landscape, talking about anything they could think of.

(Ted could tell that sitting on that tiny, low-to-the-ground porch pained the Once-Ler's old bones, but for some reason, the mysterious man insisted upon it. He loved being outside and breathing in the fresh air as much as he possibly could, these days. Weird. Then again, Ted supposed that if he had been locked up inside the dark Lerkim for such a long time with all that smog in the air, he wouldn't want to go back inside that creepy house very often, either.)

He'd taken Audrey down to the valley a few times to pay visits, as well. Of course, she'd loved it from the minute she'd first laid eyes upon it. He'd known that she would. And so, with a confident smile to himself and an almost-conspiratorial glance up at the Once-Ler, Ted had watched in silent pride in himself as Audrey had roamed about the valley, rejoicing in the open air. She hadn't been able to believe how free everything felt, how the bright colors blended and contrasted and made the whole world seem pulsating and vivid for the first time.

Ted had wanted to invite Audrey down to visit the Once-Ler today, as well, but that hadn't really worked out. She was painting a mural in town today, at the modest little dance studio that had recently opened up, and wouldn't be available all day. He had to admit, the news had left him feeling a little disappointed. Ted didn't really mind going to see the Once-Ler by himself, but he'd really counted on having some company today. There were still so many people in town, after all, that hadn't seen the Truffula Valley since the wall had been knocked down all that time ago. Ted couldn't imagine why everyone in town hadn't been as eager as he was to see the valley in all its glory, but for whatever reason, not a lot of people had really ventured outside of their comfort zone.

So, after much deliberation and after changing his mind over and over again on the subject, he'd finally decided to ask his grammy Norma if she wanted to come along with him. He knew that if anyone was willing to step out of their comfort zone and do something fun and a bit extreme, it was his trusty grandmother. He knew that she'd want to see the valley, especially now that everything was growing back again. After all, she actually remembered the environment before everything had been ruined, and she hadn't seen a real tree in a long time. Ted had to wonder how that would feel to her, to look on the valley and see everything that the rest of the world had forgotten about; he wondered if it would look the same to her as it did back then, or if everything was changed for good, no matter what.

It was almost impossible to believe how much that valley had changed over the course of only a year. The Truffula trees hadn't fully matured yet - according to one of Audrey's many books about trees, that much would take about ten years -but the saplings were starting to poke through the dirt, like little mutlicolored cottonballs. With the trees, grass, and other foliage growing back, the air quality was getting much better, too. The smog in the valley had, for the most part, disappated entirely, giving way to a beautiful, clear blue sky. Ted had once feared the place, back when it had been a shadowy wasteland, but now he found himself wanting to stay there almost all the time.

When he thought about it, it seemed impossible that the Truffula Valley could ever really go back to being the same. Such destruction over such a long period of time was bound to have long-lasting effects that could never really be repaired. The grass probably wouldn't grow very well in the ruined, dry earth, and it would probably never really be quite as green as it used to be. The air, while it was certainly much cleaner than it had been before, would probably be hazy for a while, until the trees were mature enough to really start making a difference. They were making progress, definitely, but the Once-Ler's old factory had left permanent marks on the environment, some that couldn't be changed.

Still, despite the little things, everything was doing much better in the grand scheme of things. Especially when one considered the state of the all-but-desecrated valley merely a year ago. And things could only get even better from here. The Swammee Swans had started flying back to the valley, and sometimes, even though Ted's house was a good distance away from the valley, he could still hear their sweet songs in the morning when the sun rose. Slowly but surely, the environment was clawing its way back upward, for the first time in years welcoming back the animals that it had long ago pushed away.

Even the Lorax had come back - just about a week ago, actually. Ted hadn't gotten the chance to meet him yet; the Guardian of the Forest loved roaming about the gigantic valley, and Ted could never really catch a glimpse of him during his visits to the Lerkim. That was perhaps the most disappointing thing; ever since hearing the Once-Ler's story about the grumpy little creature who spoke for the trees, Ted had wanted to meet the Lorax. It'd be beyond cool to get to see a legendary, older-than-time-itself animal face-to-face.

It would be just like meeting a celebrity, he thought. He would try to keep it cool and he'd play it casual, but on the inside he'd be all tight in the stomach and nervous, maybe even a little intimidated. He hoped that the Lorax would be proud of him for going and planting the Truffula tree in Thneedville, and for helping the Once-Ler bring back the valley, as well.

But there was no question that the creature was indeed back, even though Ted had never actually seen him. After all, it was pretty much all that the Once-Ler talked about. Ted had never seen the old man gush about anything before - except, of course, the thneed - but the Lorax was clearly a different story. He was clearly overjoyed to have his old friend back - and could you really blame him? Ted had to admit, it was nice to see the Once-Ler so . . . well, happy. In all the times that Ted had visited him before, he'd been polite and amicable, but Ted could always tell that his friend had had a lot on his mind. And now he just seemed so liberated, and in a way, that made Ted feel a lot better about everything that had happened, too.

Ted had actually talked to Audrey about that very thing only a few days ago. He'd been over at her house, hanging out in her backyard, as usual, while she repainted the mural of Truffula trees that O'Hare and his goons had painted over. (It was taking her a long time to paint everything back the way it was, but the project was really coming along, perhaps even better than it was before.)

As Ted had watched her paint in silent awe, Audrey had said, almost absently, like an afterthought, "You know . . . I'm starting to think that everything's changing." She had given a wistful sigh, lowering her paintbrush and allowing a gentle smile to touch her features.

A little surprised and confused by her comment, Ted had just blinked and shaken his head a little. "Huh?" he'd said lamely, and then, after gathering his thoughts, he had stammered, "O-oh. Oh, yeah. Yeah, totally. I guess it's a good thing that Thneedville's so different now, though. I like it better this way. And the Once-Ler sure seems happy these days." He had reached down to fiddle awkwardly with the goggles hanging around his neck, not really sure what else to say.

"Me, too." The grin on her face had only broadened as she had continued painting. "But I'm not just talking about the town! I mean . . . everything feels different, in a way! Isn't that crazy weird?" She had laughed, and turned to Ted, her cheeks slightly pink. "I mean, you change one little thing that's always been a constant in your life, no matter how small it seems, and suddenly it changes the way you see everything."

The more that Ted thought about it, the more he realized that she was really right. All his life, he'd lived in Thneedville, a tiny little placed stuffed inside a giant wall, and he had been just as blissfully unaware as everyone else living in town. He'd been content to just live every day not really knowing what he wanted, not really having any specific plans for himself. And he'd never really thought of himself as the kind of person who could make a difference for anyone or anything. Those were the constants in his life.

And then, when he'd gone to visit the Once-Ler and started hearing all about the old man's story, it was like Ted's eyes had been opened. Those constants had been taken away, replaced with these new ideas that had been admittedly a little scary at first. The story had changed the way he thought about pretty much everything, not just the environment. Of course, it made him realize that he had taken nature for granted his whole life, and that it needed to be treated with care. But beyond that, it had taught him that no matter what, you become what you choose. The circumstances surrounding the Once-Ler's family situation were really awful, and he had really been under a lot of pressure to chop down the trees - but he still could have chosen to be better than all that and put a stop to all that ruination. Instead, he'd chosen to become the man who had destroyed the environment, and he spent every day regretting it, no matter how much he fixed.

"It's not about what it is. It's about what it can become."

Ted hadn't really stopped thinking about those words ever since they'd left the Once-Ler's mouth. He was starting to believe that he was absolutely right. No matter what, you create a path for yourself, and it's up to you to decide what you want to do with that path. And even if you manage to go down the wrong road, there's almost always a way to turn back and fix everything, regardless of what everyone tells you. It might seem hopeless and bleak, but time could change a lot of things, including people.

Ted mulled all of this over, as he usually did, while bustling around in his room that Thursday afternoon. He was searching for his left tennis shoe, which was hiding somewhere beneath the mess on the floor of his cluttered bedroom. Well, it looked like some things would never change, and his perpetually-messy room was one of them. Sigh. Glancing around the room, he tried to get the task of finding his shoe over with quickly; after all, he hated to keep his grammy waiting. She had been ready to go for a while now, always one to jump the gun a little bit, and was waiting for him downstairs. Finally, he spotted the sneaker lurking underneath his bed; he snatched it, and sat down on his bed to put it on.

As he began to work the laces of his shoe, he heard voices drifting up the stairs, coming from the living room. " . . . don't understand why you don't want to come with us, dear. This is your chance to finally meet him, after all this time, and you're just going to stay as far away from him as you can get?"

Ted gave a start, surprised. He knew that voice to belong to his grammy Norma, and man, did she sure sound fired up. Almost a little bit angry, even though he'd never really known her to get genuinely upset with his mother before. There were times, of course, when they had exasperated each other, but they'd never been like this. It was one of those weird instances where they actually behaved like mother and daughter, instead of two people that lived in the same house together, and for Ted, it was beyond strange.

"I told you already, Mom, I've got things to do around the house today," sighed his mother in response, as if they'd had this conversation a million times before. Maybe they had discussed it recently after all, and Ted hadn't been paying attention. It was certainly possible, what with all that was on his mind lately. "I'll go . . . some other time, okay?"

"You've been cleaning this house top-to-bottom all week," Norma answered. "What other work is there for you to do?"

"Just . . . stuff, alright?" His mother answered, her voice taking on a nervous, defensive edge. He heard her clear her throat, and then she added in a much more level tone of voice, "Anyway, how can you be so sure he even wants to meet me in the first place?"

"Of course he wants to meet you," Grammy responded, sounding almost a little wounded. "He loves you. You know, back when I first found out I was pregnant, you were all he ever talked about." Ted heard his grandmother give a fondly reminiscient little chuckle, and he furrowed his eyebrows, deeply confused. "Please, just give him a chance, Mayzie. I know he's made so many mistakes, but he is trying to move past all that and make up for everything."

There was a long, heavy pause, and Ted thought for a moment that conversation had ended. Something was still bothering him, though. Obviously, they were talking about Ted's grandfather, whom he had never met before. He'd never really heard anything about him, either; he'd always assumed that he had passed away long ago. Just like Ted's father, Arthur Wiggins Jr., who had died before Ted was even born. But Grammy Norma seemed to be trying to convince Ted's mother to come along with them to visit the Once-Ler today, and from the way they were talking, it almost sounded like . . .

Waaaaait a second. There was no way. That was impossible. Way too weird. No, they couldn't be talking about the Once-Ler being his grandfather. Ted felt his stomach tighten nervously, immediately deciding that he was possibly just misinterpreting the entire conversation. After all, maybe they were talking about something completely different! That was possible, right?

Oh, man.

Ted laced up his shoe quickly, still hearing their voices from downstairs as they continued their conversation, but trying not to pay them any mind. He had to find out the truth, and the only way to really do that would be to bring his mother along with him. He knew that she was a lot like him, and would be willing to help get the answers that they both wanted; it sounded like Grammy Norma was being unusually tight-lipped about this situation in particular, after all. Putting on his helmet, he hurried downstairs, heart pounding with a sudden growing nervousness.

At the top of the stairs, he gripped the banister and leaned over a little, undeniably curious. Before he broke up their conversation, he wanted to hear if they had anything else informative to say to each other. Trying to keep as still and quiet as possible, he balanced himself so that they couldn't see him standing on the stairwell and listened in closely.

"I know, Mom, I just . . . don't want him to be disappointed when he finally meets me, I guess." There was a softness and vulnerability in his mother's voice that he had never really heard from her before; whether or not they were talking about the Once-Ler, this subject was obviously very dear to them both. "If he really did wait so long to meet me like you said he did."

Grammy sighed patiently. "He did, dear. He still is, actually. I'm sure he'd be just thrilled to see you stop by and visit him. I know he's missed you so much."

There was a long pause. Ted had almost started to think that the conversation was over when he heard his mother clear her throat. The sound hung in the air, heavy and awkward, until she spoke again at last.

"Well . . . alright. Alright, I'll go. But I don't have to be okay with it!" she tacked on defensively. There was another pause before she began again, her voice much more casual this time. "Huh. Sure is taking Ted an awful long time up there, isn't it? Wonder what's holding him up. Teeeeeed?" she called, raising her voice so that he could hear her. "You coming, hon?"

Ted jumped, immediately scrambling to his feet. Trying not to make it too obvious that he'd been eavesdropping this entire time, he brushed himself off and hurried down the stairs, hoping that he didn't appear too flustered. "Uh, yeah - yeah, I'm coming, Mom! Be right there!"

He quickly reached the foot of the stairs, hopping the last three. Grammy Norma grinned, clasping Ted's mother's hand in hers and leading her closer to the door. As short and stout as she was, Grammy really did have quite a commanding presence around the household, and oftentimes was able to get Ted's mom to do anything that she wanted her to. At the moment, the younger woman looked flustered more than anything else. Given the subject of the conversation Ted had just overheard, he couldn't really blame her.

"There you are," said Grammy, her cheeks aglow with a rosy delight. "You ready, Ted? I hope you don't mind, but I invited your mother to come along with us too!"

Resisting the urge to say 'I know', Ted gave his grandmother and his mom a lopsided, boyish smile. Lifting his shoulders in a nonchalant little shrug, he nodded and said, "Yeah, okay! That sounds pretty neat. You haven't actually seen the valley yet, have you, Mom?"

His mother bit her lower lip, shaking her head, surprisingly quiet. Oh, man. Something was definitely up, and Ted thought with every passing second that he knew exactly what it was about. Did he want to be proven right? Well . . . at this point, he couldn't even really say that much for certain.

What would it be like, he wondered, if everything that he'd heard now meant what he thought it meant? From what he could gather, he could only assume that they were talking like the Once-Ler, of all people, was Ted's grandfather. As far-fetched as the idea sounded, Ted had to admit that with every passing second, it began making a bit more sense than before. He had never heard anything about his granddad before, after all, and if it were the Once-Ler, then all that secrecy made sense; to speak the very name in Thneedville back when O'Hare was still in power would have been considered extremely dangerous, he was sure.

It all seemed to fit, and yet, Ted still found himself really hoping that he'd heard things wrong. No offense to the Once-Ler - after all, he was certainly an important figure in Ted's life now that they knew each other so well - but, well . . . that entire idea was just a little overwhelming in itself. Ted had wondered his whole life about his ever-elusive grandparent, and now that he thought about the fact that he may not have been so far away after all . . . it was completely bewildering.

Then again, he might not have anything to worry about at all. After all, he'd only heard about half of the conversation. He couldn't exactly be sure who they were talking about, right? Maybe there was the extremely slim chance that they were talking about visiting someone else in the Truffula Valley . . . riiiiight? Oh, man. He knew he was grasping for straws, and yet he couldn't exactly even name why he was so afraid of the possibility. It was unexpected, yes, but hey, if it did happen to be true and if it made his grammy happy, then who was he to argue?

Great, Ted thought as he glanced between the two puffy-haired women, trying not to appear that he had overheard any of their conversation. His grandmother probably wouldn't be angry, but his mother definitely did not hold back when it came to punishments. Why do I have a feeling that this is gonna turn out to be reeeeeally awkward . . . ?

"It'll be fun, you'll see," said Grammy, thankfully breaking the awkward silence. Ted smiled a little, relieved. He could always count on her to lighten up any worrisome situation quickly enough. If there was anything good about the situation, she was absolutely overjoyed to get to go visit the valley. She seemed more excited than anyone else, actually. "Now, let's get goin'!"

As they all headed out of the door, Ted couldn't stop thinking about what he'd heard just moments earlier, private words that hadn't been meant for his ears. Could it really be possible that, after all this time, he could have some family that he had never known about? And had he really been that close all this time?

Ted supposed, as frightening as it was, that he would be getting his answers soon enough . . .

The last time the Once-Ler had seen a day this beautiful in the Truffula Valley, he'd been a very young man. With all the trees finally growing back and the environment slowly but surely coming back to life, the weather was looking better with every passing day. But today . . . oh, yes, today had to be the best-looking day in his long-running memory. With that crisp, cloudless blue sky and the bright midday sun hanging overhead, it was comfortably warm. The breeze gently blowing through the valley made the temperatures all but pristine.

Perfect weather for tending to the little Truffula sproutlings.

The Once-Ler cocked his head to the sky, taking a deep breath of the clean, fresh air. It had been so long since he'd been able to take an even breath like that, without any hacking or sour-smelling factory smog. It had been a whole year since the city of Thneedville had started re-growing the Truffula Valley, but he still couldn't get over how different things were now. He'd always hoped that one day, he'd be able to get back everything that he had thrown away so flippantly in the past. And now, after so many years, it was finally unfolding in front of him. And he was determined to not let it slip through his fingers again.

Funny how his perspective on things had changed so much, ever since the fall of his factory all that time ago. The things that he had thought mattered more than anything else, like the approval of the public and popularity, fame and the finer things in life, really didn't mean a thing in the long run. He had chased after acceptance so blindly that he hadn't even known what he'd destroyed until it was too late. It was his own personal curse, that impulsiveness, and he didn't really think that he would ever be free of that. Nor the greed, though he'd certainly dealt with all of that through the years, locked up alone like this. He knew that they were his flaws, and was trying to change them; it was just a part of who he was, and he couldn't change that any more than he could change the fact that he had blue eyes or was tall and skinny as a rail, even in his old age.

Some part of the Once-Ler suspected that the Lorax knew this, too. After all, in the time following the Guardian of the Forest's return to the valley, he could have easily given the Once-Ler absolute Hell about the mistakes that the man had made when he was younger. The Lorax had every right in the world to be beyond angry with Oncie for everything, and yet . . . he hadn't held any of it over his head at all. It was as simple as forgiving and moving on. Not really forgetting about what happened, but not letting it define their friendship, or the future in general. Things had certainly changed since they'd first met, and the Once-Ler had been just an immature young upstart who was prone to blocking out anything he didn't want to hear.

He wasn't exactly sure where the Lorax was today. The Guardian loved flitting around the forest, taking care of the grass or whatever other flora that he saw fit. He very rarely stayed put in one place for a very long time. It warmed the Once-Ler's old heart to know that his friend was finally back to his old job of taking care of the trees - and now, he too could help him along with that cause. When they weren't sitting around and catching up on old times with each other, the Lorax and the Once-Ler usually found different spots in the valley to tend to. As of right now, the Once-Ler was working diligently in front of his old decrepit house, his every movement slow and careful - only partly due to age. This time around, he wanted to make sure he got everything right.

The Once-Ler dipped his watering can, sprinkling the little orange Truffula sprout at his feet, one of the many trees that were already starting to poke through the ground. This one was one of the youngest plants in the garden in front of the Lerkim, so it needed extra care, especially when it was planted in soil that was still recovering, itself. Even after all these years, Once-Ler had kept Jean's old gardening book, with all the information on the Truffula trees written down inside it. The book was extraordinarily helpful, seeing as he didn't really know a lot about planting a rare species of trees. The Lorax had been a great deal of help, as well, using his powers to help the trees and the rest of the wildlife flourish a little better. Everything was finally falling into place again.

If the valley itself was doing this well, the Once-Ler couldn't imagine what Thneedville must look like. Even though the wall had been torn down a year ago and the town was becoming more accepting of the trees and of Oncie himself, he still hadn't worked up the courage to return yet. Part of it was his own pride getting the best of him, as usual. He'd never been an arrogant man, but he did have a big ego, and had always hated being forced to admit when he was actually wrong. Sure, he had accepted a long time ago that he needed to take responsibility for what happened to the Truffula Valley, but that didn't mean that he still couldn't be ashamed. Too ashamed to return to the place that he'd built as a home for himself and his family. What would everybody in that town think of him now? Would they judge him, think him a hypocrite or a fool for even coming back in the first place? What if they didn't even let him back in town, for fear that he might mess everything up again?

He was so reluctant to go back to town that he hadn't even been back to see Norma yet. He'd had a whole year's worth of opportunities to go and visit her, and they could be reunited finally, after all these years. But every time he'd tried to work up the nerve to go, he'd changed his mind and crawled back in his house to hide away. What if Norma's opinion of him had changed after all this time, too? Things could change so drastically in such a long time, after all. And even though he had told her, long ago, that he only wanted her to be happy and if she found a new love, he would understand . . . he couldn't help but fear the possibility, anyway. What if he went back to that town only to find that Norma had moved on and forgotten all about him? It seemed so selfish to assume that she'd just waited for him so long and held out for him so unflinchingly. Who would be good enough to do that?

Someone exactly like your wife, he reminded himself with a little reminiscient chuckle, a grin returning to his wrinkled face as it's own rueful ghost. She's always been just like that - stubborn as anything.

"You still here, Beanpole?" came a familiar voice from behind the Once-Ler's shoulder.

The old man turned around, aiming the grin on his face at the Lorax, who stood before him just as short and fuzzy as ever. The orange creature's hands rested on his hips, and his bushy yellow eyebrows were raised with mild surprise. In response to the look on the Guardian's face, the Once-Ler gave a gruff little laugh, gripping the watering can more tightly to give it a bit more balance.

"You bet I am," he replied, narrowing his blue eyes slightly against the brightness of the midday sun. "What, didya expect anything different? I've got a lot of work to do around here. I was only gonna to fix up some things around the outside of my house, but I thought I oughta tend to the little Truffulas here while I'm at it."

A smile lifted up the corners of the Lorax's famously fluffy yellow mustache. "Yeah, good thinkin', kid." The Once-Ler had always thought it funny that even though so many years had passed, the Lorax called him 'kid' like nothing had ever changed. Like he was still that sunny, fresh-faced youth from forty-something years ago. He supposed to someone like the Lorax who was as old as time itself, he really was still quite young in comparison. That was a flattering thought. "Why don't you go take the load off? I'll take care of the rest of the trees for ya. Ain't ya been workin' all morning?"

Adjusting the fluffy pink thneed draped around his skinny neck, the Once-Ler raised an eyebrow, smirking a bit. "What are you saying, exactly?" he responded with the cantankerous sense of humor that had come to define him in his days trapped in the Lerkim. "I'm not that brittle yet, Mustache. I can handle it. I like being out here, anyways. Feels good to get out of that house every once in a while." He sniffed and went back to industriously watering the mini-Truffulas.

"Aaah. Go 'head, go 'head. If you say so," the Lorax answered, knowing that his old friend's stubbornness knew no bounds. And he couldn't exactly fault the poor man for wanting to spend some more time outside. After all that time in the dark, he couldn't blame him for wanting to breathe some fresh air for once. "Just don't expect me to come drag you back inside that house if ya keel over," he tacked on gruffly, though the Once-Ler knew that the Lorax was joking. It was always easy to tell with that fuzzy meatloaf.

"Hmph. Duly noted," said the Once-Ler. The old man gave a gravelly little laugh, ambling slowly along and continuing to water the little trees in the growing valley. Sighing contentedly, he looked out on the horizon for just a moment, enjoying with every passing second the way that the colors blended in the skyline, the thriving life of the entire valley only adding to the beauty of the scene. "Looks just like new," he mused, half to himself. "This place starts looking better every day, I think."

The Lorax nodded, gazing around the forest with a blissful, almost reminiscient look in his eyes. "Yeah, I gotta hand it to ya, Beanpole. It ain't half bad." He tilted his head to the side slightly, his expression turning a bit more curious. "What's it look like over in that town? You been back there yet?"

Oncie swallowed hard, shaking his head. There was a beat of silence before he responded, "Ah, no. Nah. I haven't."

"Huh?" The Lorax blinked, looking bemused. "How come? I woulda thought you'd be itchin' to get back there first thing. What changed your mind?"

Despite his efforts to remain composed and level, the Once-Ler's cheeks reddened of their own accord. Was the Lorax really going to make him admit, out loud, that he was too prideful and even a little too afraid to go back? Surely his friend couldn't be that oblivious to the way that humans think and feel. Especially not someone that he knew as well as the Once-Ler. Still, the old man gave a little sigh, squinting against the bright sun as he stared off towards the horizon, where Thneedville was a dark line spotting along in the distance.

"Nothing's changed my mind," he replied, admittedly a little bit defensive. Even after so much time apart, the Once-Ler hadn't forgotten for a minute how transparent he always felt around the Lorax. He was a legendary, powerful Guardian of the Forest, and he could probably see right through any human's cover-ups down to their real emotions. That was perhaps the most annoying thing of all. "I still do want to go back, and I'll go when I'm good 'n ready."

"Ehh, suit yourself," the Lorax responded, following the Once-Ler's line of sight and staring out into the distance at Thneedville, as well. "I know you've got that family of yours that might be wonderin' about you, though," he noted - as if Oncie hadn't thought about that every single day of his long, lonely life anyway.

"I know," he answered, his fingers absently, nervously twisting the pink thneed as he spoke. "I know that. A-and I am going to go back, one of these days. Just . . . not today. Not yet." He paused, clearing his throat. "And besides, I've got a lot of work to do around here, anyways. Not really a lot of time for visits." He was bluffing, of course, to hide his own complicated feelings towards returning to Thneedville, but oh well.

The Lorax said nothing more about the subject, but the Once-Ler knew that his friend understood, anyway. They didn't really need to say anything more about it; the words passed between them, unspoken, like so much more that he hadn't said after so many years of living in guilt. He'd always wanted to work up the nerve to really apologize to the Lorax, even though he knew the Guardian could probably tell that he felt guilty and awful enough anyway. That didn't matter - he wanted to say it out loud anyway, and finally bring himself some peace. And yet, he'd never really worked up the nerve to say it, anyway.

He had to even wonder how he would begin to apologize for everything, anyhow. It was all so much bigger than he had ever imagined; his decisions had affected not just an entire ecosystem, but the generations to come, as well. All his reckless business planning and biggering hadn't amounted to anything, when all he'd wanted all along was something he could never have; acceptance. He'd just his family so blindly, he hadn't thought of anyone or anything else. How could he even start to say that he was sorry? That didn't even seem nearly enough to make up for everything that he'd done.

All the Once-Ler wanted these days was redemption, forgiveness. And that became increasingly more difficult for him to get when he didn't even believe that he deserved it in the first place.

"Well, if you're workin' here, then I'm gonna go down to the river and check things out there," said the Lorax after a while, breaking the Once-Ler's train of thought. "Still haven't seen the Humming fish yet, but I'm keepin' an eye out for when they'll be back. At the way things are lookin' now, it might be sooner than I thought," he assured his old friend, his yellow mustache lifting in a smile.

The Once-Ler smiled in return, his heart lifting a bit at this. He knew that it would take a while for all of the animals to return to the forest, but he would definitely be willing to wait. He had waited this long, after all; what was a few more months to him? In the meantime, he would keep tending to the valley as much as he could, and make sure that it was clean and well-kept for whenever the rest of the animals decided that they could come back after all. He would certainly miss them in the meantime, but at least everything was finally growing again and he had that to look forward to. The world around him was no longer the bleak, desolate wasteland he'd known for so long.

Things were finally starting to look up for him, after so long.

"Alright," he responded, nodding his head. "Well, you know where I'll be if you need me. I'm not gonna get but so far on these old legs," he added with a gruff little laugh. "See you around, Mustache."

He glanced back down at the little baby Truffula trees at his feet, listening as the Lorax shuffled off into the distance. Well, it looked like he was nearly finished with watering the baby trees; after that, he would probably have a few minutes to just sit down on the porch by himself. He did that a lot these days, just sat and thought. Oh, and there was always a lot of knitting involved, of course. But he did so outside - he hated going back in that stuffy house now that he finally had the option to stay out and get fresh air as much as possible. He was hardly ever inside anymore, except to sleep, and even then all he did was lie awake at night.

No matter how much the environment grew back around him, after all, it couldn't change how guilty he still felt and everything that he had done to begin with. He'd never forget any of that, not even for a second. And most of the time, whenever he tried to get to sleep, his nightmares caught up with him. Dreams wouldn't let him forget all the bad things he'd done, either. They haunted and tested him still to this day, and Once-Ler didn't really see himself getting any peace anytime soon. It had been that way for years, and it didn't look like it was looking up for him at all. Not yet.

The sound of footsteps trumping through the grass alerted the Once-Ler to another presence in the valley. It couldn't possibly have been the Lorax, since he'd just walked off in the opposite direction. So that meant someone new was visiting. One of the other animals, perhaps? Eagerly, the Once-Ler raised his head, searching for the source of the noise . . .

and promptly froze right up.

"Hey, uh, I'm back! It's Thursday, remember?" said Ted Wiggins, rubbing the back of his neck and giving the old man a crooked, slightly awkward little smile.

Of course! He'd forgotten that it was a Thursday; Ted came to visit him every Thursday, and he was always prompt. That kid was always good on showing up when he said he was going to be there, that was for sure. He looked more or less the same as he always did, with his tousled brown hair, his goggles slung around his neck, his striped shirt, and his wide brown eyes. Same old, same old. Ted himself wasn't what surprised the Once-Ler; it was the people that he had decided to bring with him today.

Ted was flanked on either side by women who could have been close to identical, were it not for their differences in age and height. They both had their hair styled in the exact same way, like giant puffballs on their head, the curls just as wild and outrageous as the Once-Ler remembered his wife's being. The woman on the left - the younger one - had dark hair, while the woman on the right was silver-haired through and through. They both wore circular glasses in front of their brown eyes, and even their purple-and-pink dresses were nearly matching. They wore expressions of bewilderment on their faces as they stared up at the Once-Ler, like they were busy taking everything in at once.

These two women . . . they couldn't be who he thought they were. Could they? How did they know Ted, if that were true? How much had he missed when he was locked up in that Lerkim, letting the world just pass him by?

There was a long, slightly uncomfortable span of silence between the four of them. The younger woman was beginning to look a little dubious, glancing at Ted as though she thought she might run away at any given moment. The older woman, however, was still staring, transfixed, at the Once-Ler, her eyes dancing away behind her glasses. Just as he had opened his mouth to ask what the problem was, she came forward slowly, almost admiringly, and silenced him by reaching up (a long distance, for she was rather short) and taking his hand.

Wait a minute . . .

He knew that softness that met his own callused fingers almost immediately; he wasn't certain of whether or not it was true, but he wished and hoped with all his might that it could really be her, after so long. His fingers curled around hers instinctively - if anything else, he wanted to cling to the hopefulness, the maybe.

A smile played across the old woman's lips, making his heart skip restlessly behind his rib cage. "Oh . . . it's so good to see you again, Stilts," she cooed, and in an instant, the Once-Ler knew that every instinct practically screaming inside of him was correct. There was only one woman in the world that could smile like that, who called him that silly pet name and still made his heart leap.

He could hardly believe it, and yet he found the words stumbling clumsily out of his mouth, anyway.

"You . . . I . . . you're here. Norma?"

His eyebrows shot so far up they might have disappeared beneath the shadow of the brim of his top hat. Immediately, his cheeks turned so dark red that he almost felt like a young man again, all goofy and nervous and jittery, especially when it came to this woman in particular. Even after being married to her for so long, he still couldn't help but feel so giddy whenever they spoke. And it had been such a long time, every last emotion almost seemed to be going into overdrive by the second.

"Well, of course I'm here, silly!" she cried, as if they hadn't been seperated at all. Swatting his elbow playfully, she grinned impishly up at him and explained, "I knew that if I just sat and waited for you to decide you wanted to come into town to see me, I'd be waiting 'til I was on my death-bed. So I decided to come see you, instead. You can thank Ted for bringing me along."

But right now, the Once-Ler wasn't concerned with Ted. He didn't care if the boy thought that his grandmother was "cramping his style", or whatever it was that the kids said these days. He couldn't care less if Ted was confused about what was going on, or if the other woman with him even had a clue of what was happening. He didn't even stop to consider how in the world Ted must know Norma. He would work out all those other, more complicated thoughts later. Right now there was just Norma, just his wife, and he wanted nothing more than to be with her right at that very second.

Reaching for her other hand now and squeezing both of them tightly, he said, "I-I . . . I don't know what I oughta say. I'm so sorry I didn't come back. I should have, I was just . . . well, I don't know what I was thinking. But I'm sorry. I think about you all the time . . . " his voice trailed off, and for a moment, he thought about the fact that he was probably ruining his image in front of Ted. Here he was, acting all mushy and soft, when Ted had only ever seen the gruff, hermit of a man that he had tried to be in the past. He wasn't sure of whether he ought to be embarrassed or just embrace it.

Fortunately, as always Norma didn't really seem to care what anyone thought. Reaching up to stroke his wrinkled cheek, she replied with a softness he hadn't seen from her in a while, "I know. Of course I missed you down there in town, but I knew all along what you must've been feeling. I know you better than you think I do, handsome," she giggled, winking with her old familiarly teasing attitude. "So . . . " she said, her tone becoming just a tad more serious, "how've you been holding up down here?"

"I've been - I - well, it gets better living here every day, but I don't really think that's the most important thing we've got to talk about here!" he cried, more confused than anything else now. He glanced back to Ted for a moment, then to Norma once again, resting his hands carefully on her shoulders. "I wanna hear about everything that's happened - everything I've missed. 'Cause it seems like I've missed a lot."

Norma nodded understandingly, though he could sense that her impatience was just as great as hers. Both of them were more than eager to catch up on old times and just have some alone time together, but it didn't seem like there would be any of that for a while. "There's someone else here I want you to meet," said Norma, the familiar scent of her perfume and shampoo very close to him now.

Holding his hand once again, she steered him in the direction of the younger girl, whose expression almost directly mirrored Ted's - bemused, shocked, and a little bit freaked-out. When the Once-Ler was standing in front of the younger woman, the wheels in his head began turning instantly. He never did find out what gender his baby would be, after all . . . and this girl did look an awful lot like both of them . . .

"This is Mayzie Wiggins," said Norma, trying to keep her tone light and conversational. "But her maiden name is Onceler. She's your daughter, sweetheart."

For a moment, it was all that the two of them could do to just stand there in silent awe, just gazing at each other, trying to remember every last detail. This was really her - he just knew it, even if Norma hadn't just told him. He could see it now, the closer he looked; her resemblance to her father was really uncanny. Those big eyes, even if they were brown like Norma's, held much of his own facial expressions. Her mannerisms seemed the same, and that dark hair was quite familiar to him as well. And there was no mistaking where she'd gotten that round face from.

And her name was Mayzie. His heart twisted inside his chest, and he fixed a bittersweet, almost disbelieving gaze onto his daughter, hoping that he'd do a better job of holding his tears in than he felt like he was doing at the moment. He remembered that back when he'd first found out Norma was pregnant, he'd gone through all sorts of baby-name books picking out his favorite choices. He'd picked a lot of boy names, but he'd been settled on one if the baby turned out to be a girl: Mayzie.

And now, here she was, his little girl . . . in person and in front of him for the first time!

He opened his mouth, but he wasn't really sure what to say. What could he say, after being absent from her life for so long? As happy as he was to have finally found her, he couldn't help but feel overwhelmingly guilty, as well. Would she resent him for being gone for her entire life? He couldn't imagine that she would be able to just readily forgive him like that. He knew how awful it felt to have to grow up without a father; were he in the same position as her, he probably wouldn't be so understanding, either. And she was an adult now, and he was an old man. Would she even be able to love him if she hadn't grown up needing him? She hadn't grown up his daughter . . . so how could something like that be reversed?

At last, he found his voice, though the words he created weren't nearly enough for what he really wanted to say. He cleared his throat and murmured, "You mean you're my . . . " she nodded, prompting him forward. "And I'm your . . . " another nod. Then a sigh from the Once-Ler, who placed his hand lightly on his forehead with disbelief. "I-I never figured that I'd be meeting you like this, or else I would've . . . I don't know, cleaned up a little more or something."He gave a hollow, shaky laugh, then looked back at her again, his eyes wide and shining with pride. "You're my little girl!"

If he weren't mistaken, he thought he saw her brown eyes shining with unshed tears, as well. He couldn't help but be a little relieved that he wasn't the only one getting so emotional around here. He didn't even want to consider what Ted must be feeling like right now; poor kid was probably beyond freaked-out. Ah, well; he'd get his share of explanations in a pretty short while, anyway. And besides, the Once-Ler wasn't even sure of all the details himself, yet.

"Dad?" Mayzie said tentatively, pushing her glasses up on the bridge of her nose. "I-It's really you, huh? I'm finally meeting you for real?"

Her voice; it was only that one little word, and yet he heard everything in that voice. It was so reminiscient of what Norma had sounded like as a younger woman that he had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep the incredulous laugh building up inside him from being heard.

He gave a pained little shrug, his shoulders caving in with an almost-shyness that had become a part of his personality over the years. Suddenly he felt like he wasn't quite enough, that he would never be enough to make up for all that lost time between himself and his daughter. "I-I know I'm probably a lot different from what you expected," he said, giving a gravelly little chuckle, "but d'you think you'd still want to at least g-get to know me? Or anything?"

Mayzie gulped unevenly, taking a nervous little step forward. She seemed to hesitate for just a moment before she reached out and pulled her father into an awkward, one-armed hug. The action was stiff, and not quite loving and warm, but it was definitely a start. The Once-Ler was willing to work from this point; it was definitely better than what he'd expected from his daughter, which was outright hate. Thank goodness she at least wanted to spend time with him and was glad to be his daughter.

"Of course I do," she mumbled against his shoulder, barely even loud enough for him to hear. "Y-you're my . . . my dad."

He could still feel her reluctance, and he didn't really blame her for that. Just knowing that she would be willing to let him into her life at all was good enough for him, at this point. Especially when he considered that he didn't even deserve that much. Nervously, he glanced back to Norma for just a moment; his wife was standing next to Ted, who was looking more and more unnerved with every passing second. He glanced at the boy with an expression that would assure him that everything would be explained in due time, then looked back to Norma for reassurance of his own. Norma nodded quickly, a smile forming on her features, encouraging him forward.

"You're darn right I am," he replied to her. "A-and I know I haven't been around a lot, but I'm gonna fix this. I'm gonna make it up to you, all of you. D'you know that?" he nodded his head shortly, almost as though he was reassuring himself. "I . . . I've missed you," he admitted, a little bit sheepishly.

Mayzie blinked, taking all of this in for a moment. The Once-Ler imagined that this couldn't possibly be easy for her; after all, she'd grown up without any sort of father figure in her life, and meeting him so suddenly out of the blue couldn't be so simple for anyone. But to find out that her father was the same man who had destroyed the environment and lived a reclusive life out among the ruination of his own creation was that much worse. He couldn't help but wish in vain that he could be someone better than all that, someone that she would be proud to be connected to in any way. He could tell by the look on her face that it would take some time for her to truly warm up to him, but that was alright. These days, it usually did take a while for most people to get close to him, anyway.

Her shoulders caved in and she bit her lower lip, an expression of embarrassment that was almost eerily similiar to the Once-Ler. Yes, there was certainly no doubt now that he looked at the details that this woman was his daughter. Just looking at her could tell him that much. "I've missed you, too," she admitted at last, her voice still sounding a little bit guarded. "I mean, Mom always told me about you, but that wasn't the same as seeing you in person, and . . . and I always wondered where you were and what you were like. And if you would even want me."

Guiltily, the Once-Ler sighed and said, "Yeah, I thought you'd say something like that." He looked down at his feet for a moment, then back up at her. "I'm so sorry for everything. Look, I . . . I know I can't ever get any of that time back, but from now on, I'm not goin' anywhere. It'll be a little different, because you're grown up now and all, but if you ever need me . . . you know where I'll be."

"Hey . . . don't feel bad," she reassured him, though he could tell by her tone of voice that she certainly felt a little bit awkward, too. "I'm actually glad I finally found you. Mom was the one who convinced me to come here, actually. I, uh, didn't really wanna go at first. But I gotta admit, it feels good knowing, I guess." She fiddled with her fingers nervously. "And I guess I am pretty happy that Ted can have some closure now too. I always felt so bad that he grew up without ever even knowing his own grandfather."

Before the Once-Ler could respond, Ted cut in, stepping forward so that he was standing beside his mother, looking bewildered. "Whoa whoa whoa, wait wait. Hold on a minute. Soooooo, it's true then, huh? You really are my . . . g-grandpa?" He raised his eyebrows, the look on his face teetering between confused, embarrassed, and a little bit grossed-out. He imagined it was hard on the kid, finding out that his grandma and his old friend were actually married all this time.

Unable to help himself, an awkward, disjointed little laugh escaped the Once-Ler's throat, his eyes shifting around until he finally settled on Ted once again. What exactly could he say to the poor kid that would possibly make the situation at least a little better? He was sure that it had to be a bombshell, and to try to take it all in while everyone else was still getting adjusted to the idea as well had to be even more difficult. None of them seemed to really have any answers.

And yet . . . maybe this all didn't have to be as shocking and completely nerve-wracking as it seemed. After all, the Once-Ler was more than relieved to have finally met his daughter and become reunited with his wife again, after all this time. It was all he'd ever wanted when he'd been locked away in the Lerkim, practically all he ever thought about when he hadn't been obsessing over the Unless rock. And was he really so surprised that a good kid like Ted was his grandson? He reminded him quite a bit of what he'd been like as a younger man; not really so much in physical appearance, but in attitude. Ted was just as idealistic and hopeful as Oncie had been back then - the only difference being that Ted had a much stronger sense of right and wrong.

"Well, uh . . . it sure looks like I am, now doesn't it?" the Once-Ler said at last, giving another weak little chuckle and an uncertain smile, unsure of what else he could possibly say. "You sure you're okay with that, Ted?"

"Uh . . . ehehe, well, I dunno," Ted answered, rubbing the back of his neck once again. They knew each other well enough by now that the shock wasn't really the negative kind, but he supposed the boy couldn't help but be a bit thrown, nonetheless. "I'm not really sure yet, I guess. I mean, this is all kinda crazy, y'know? I'm not really against it, if that means anything."

At this, Mayzie tapped her son on the shoulder, giving him a pointed look. While the two of them were busy looking away from the Once-Ler, Norma edged up right beside him and took his hand in hers, her pudgy fingers lacing through his. The Once-Ler's heart gave a faint little flutter, and, as always, he felt ten times better just having her right there next to him. And now, they'd be together a heck of a lot more often, thank goodness.

"Hey, handsome," she greeted. "I'm so glad that you seem to be taking this all so well," Norma praised him, keeping her voice low as Mayzie and Ted conversed with each other. "I wasn't sure at first how this would go over, but I think there's a good chance we could all be together again soon, just like old times." She smiled up at him, squeezing his hand gently. "We'll finally be a family again. Can you believe we're all home?"

He laughed a little airily, giving his head a bewildered shake. "It's kinda hard to believe," he answered, turning to her, his eyes wide with awe and adoration that hadn't been there in a long time. The sort of love he had always felt for this woman wasn't just something that faded away over time, and now it was coming right back, full-fledged as ever. "I-I mean, I always knew I'd find you again one of these days, but . . . i-it's just, I've been alone here for such a long time . . . it's a bit of a shock to get back into the normal swing of things."

In response to this, Norma grinned, lifting his hand gently and pressing a kiss to his knobby, ancient knuckles. "Trust me, you'll do just fine. And I know that both of them," she nodded to their daughter and grandson next, the smile on her face only broadening, "will be just tickled pink to have you back with us again. They might be acting a little unsure now, but just give them some time and they'll come around. I already know that Ted looks up to you more than anyone."

"Me?" the Once-Ler asked, trying to keep his tone as gruff and indifferent as usual, but failing. He couldn't help but let at least a little bit of the shock he was feeling color his voice. "Wh-why would he look up to someone like me? Take pity on me, maybe, o-or try not to end up like me. But . . . after what I did . . . I don't understand."

"Maybe he just takes after me," Norma said, leaning into her husband slightly, clutching his arm almost protectively, "and he sees all the good things about you, too. There's more to you than just your past, dear, don't you know that?"

Blushing furiously, the Once-Ler cleared his throat, giving her an awkward little smile. He squeezed her hand gently in return to her words, at last working up what he wanted to say to her. "Well, I'm glad you think so, anyway," he said, his eyes brighter and more mirthful than they had been in years as he stared down at his wife. "You're the only one I'm lookin' to impress, after all."

Giggling, Norma stood on her tiptoes and hugged him as tightly as possible around his skinny midsection. He had always been tall and rail-thin, but years alone in solitude with the smoke affecting his health, combined with his age, had made him thinner than ever these days. Norma had gotten even shorter than ever in her old age, and so she just nuzzled her face against his lower chest, content to just be with him, no matter what. The Once-Ler's arms found their place around her, as well; it had been a long time, but they still fit around her just as well as they always did, holding her securely against him. He leaned down to brush a light, almost tentative kiss against the top of her head, blushing as he realized that his daughter and Ted might be observing them.

"I have the most wonderful husband in all the world," she sighed happily. "Don't worry, Once. Everything's gonna be just fine, you'll see. Mayzie and Ted'll love having you around." She lifted her chin slightly to gaze adoringly at him, the smile on her face softening as she reached up to stroke his cheek. "They know now that you make me happy, so they'll be happy to have you around too."

The Once-Ler blinked, hardly able to believe that he would ever be so readily accepted by anyone, let alone people that he'd practically abandoned for years of their lives. "You really think so?" he asked, his eyebrows lifting incredulously.

"What do I always say, huh?" she asked him, quirking an eyebrow and fixing a playful expression onto her face. "I don't just think so - I know so. Because I'm your wife," she poked him affectionately in his stomach, "and I know everything. So there."

The Once-Ler gave a low chuckle, unable to help himself as a genuine smile finally graced his features. It had been so long since he'd actually had so much to smile about; and now things seemed to be getting better for him day by day. And it turned out that none of this happiness was ever that far away from him to begin with. He had his whole family with him now - it didn't get much better than that!

And man, what a family did he have! Not only was he married to the most amazing woman he'd ever met, but he had a beautiful daughter and one heck of a grandson, as well. If he could've had his pick out of all the kids in Thneedville to end up to be his grandson, then it definitely would've been Ted anyway, no contest. He was a smart young man, idealistic and wise ahead of his years, incredibly unlike a lot of kids that the Once-Ler was used to. That was definitely something to be proud of; the Once-Ler only wished that he could have ever been as smart as his grandson. Maybe then a lot of poor decisions wouldn't have been made in the past . . . well, good to know that integrity ran strong in Norma's side of the family, at least.

"I've really missed hearing that," he said to Norma, his voice warmer and more affectionate than it had been in years. "Listen, Norma. I-I know I haven't been able to tell you so in a long time, but . . . " he swallowed hard, almost a little nervous as he said with an incredible softness in his voice, "I love you. I do."

"I love you, too, sweetheart," she replied almost immediately, that same old affection in her voice that she'd always reserved just for him. "I always have, and I always will, too."

"So, um . . . Dad?" Mayzie piped up once again, sounding a little nervous and uncertain. It would take a while for all of them to get used to this setup, but the Once-Ler was definitely ready to just deal with that, if it made things better in the long run. He watched as Mayzie kneaded her fingers nervously, biting her lower lip. "Tedster and I were just talking, and we wondered if you might wanna come back into town with us and eat lunch over at our place." She gave him a very faint, encouraging little smile.

Norma's eyes widened excitedly behind her spectacles. "Oh! That's a great idea!" She looked up to her husband, her expression bright and hopeful. "What do you say, Oncie? You know we'd love to have you there. And I know you haven't been back to town in a long time. Now would be as good a time as any to get back there and get comfortable. You won't have to live out here away from everybody anymore."

"N-Now, Ma, I only just invited him for lunch," said Mayzie, blushing lightly. "We'd love for him to come, but he doesn't have to feel like he needs to stay any longer than he wants to." Next, turning to the Once-Ler, she stammered a bit awkwardly, "P-please don't feel pressured, I-I just thought it'd be nice to ask if you wanted to come . . . "

Her voice trailed off uncomfortably at the end of her sentence, leaving the four of them suspended in a prolonged silence. The Once-Ler thought about her offer for a moment, rubbing the back of his neck out of his usual nervous habit. Go back to Thneedville? Hadn't he just finished telling the Lorax earlier that he wasn't ready to go back to that town yet? It did seem incredibly daunting, and even after meeting up again with his long-lost family, he wasn't sure if he would ever really be up to the task. Maybe he should just give himself one more week. One more week to get accustomed to everything, and then he would make himself go back, no more stalling or questions asked.

Then again . . . maybe it really was the time for him to go back now. It certainly wasn't going to be very helpful to keep putting it off like he had been doing previously. And it was clear that even if this situation had all four of them thrown, they did want to be together and try to be a family again. Why would he deny them all that possibility? He had never been a negative man in the past; sometimes he wished that he could go back to that old optimism, instead of being the bitter, jaded cynic that he was these days. He couldn't allow himself to back out on his family just because he had a bit more difficult time these days accepting when good things happened to him. He'd made fun of Ted for it in the past, but maybe now the Once-Ler was the one who needed to be "undeterred by reality".

"Yeah, c'mon," Ted chimed in, surprisingly encouraging towards the Once-Ler despite the boy's mixed feelings towards this whole situation. "I've been trying to talk him into going back for months now," the boy confided not-so-subtly to his mother, who gave a tiny smile that this. Turning back to Oncie, he gave him an awkward, almost rueful little smile and shrugged, saying, "Who knows? It could be really cool. And besides, you kinda need a break from working around here all the time."

Oncie couldn't believe how well Ted seemed to be taking this whole thing. Then again, he couldn't really explain why he was so shocked. That all actually seemed very typical of Ted; make the best of everything that happened to him, and try to keep his chin up no matter what. So if he were asked to welcome a new family member into his home, he would do so and try his best to be upbeat about it. It certainly was a personality trait that the Once-Ler dearly appreciated right now.

Here they were, finally offering him a chance to start over. To redeem himself, and at last move forward from all the destruction he'd caused in the past. He could never forget all of that, but he could allow it to shape him and build him up, instead of tearing him down as it had all these years. The guilt had swallowed his old self up and left him a bit withered, but now was the perfect opportunity to take all of that back and begin living again. Living, as he'd never had a chance to live for much of his adult life.

He'd have to be a fool not to take a chance like this one.

"Ah, well . . . " the Once-Ler sighed, scratching his nose just above the fluffy white mustache striping across his face. He glanced around nervously, his eyes at last finding Norma, who was gazing hopefully up at him. He reached for her hand, and she laced her fingers through his, squeezing. He wasn't alone. At last, he was no longer alone. "A-alright. Okay. I'll go. I'll go back."

At this, Norma's face positively lit up. "You will? Oh! That's wonderful!" she cried, turning to Mayzie and Ted excitedly. They could hardly match her levels of enthusiasm, but they both did seem happy enough that he was coming along with them, as well. "Well, c'mon, let's get going, then! What're we doing hanging around here?"

"Easy, Ma," said Mayzie, though she couldn't help but laugh, as well, a genuine smile spreading onto her features. "We're going, we're going." Turning to the Once-Ler next, Mayzie took a deep breath and squared her shoulders, saying softly, "I . . . it's good to have you back, Dad."

Without even hesitating for a second longer, the Once-Ler smiled back at his daughter and pulled her close, embracing her as tightly as his old, weakened arms could manage. He didn't even stop to think about how awkward his daughter must feel, or that he was probably overstepping some unspoken boundary between the two of them. All he knew was that he hadn't held his daughter in his whole life, and even though she was grown up now and didn't need him to hold her any longer, he couldn't help but want to be near to her, anyway. Just once, he wanted to hold his little girl before she went back to being . . . well, not a little girl. A mother.

After all, she had never even heard him say that he loved her before. She'd grown up without him there, and that hurt most of all. The Once-Ler knew what it felt like to grow up not even knowing if your father even cared about you, and he hated that he'd put his own daughter through that too. Even though he'd been determined not to turn out like his own dad, he'd managed to do so anyway, and it didn't seem fair at all. Hopefully, now that they would be able to be together as a family again, he would have plenty of time to make up for all of that.

Finally, he wasn't alone anymore.

It was still incredibly difficult for him to comprehend that much, even as the four of them started walking towards town. He had been alone and secluded for so long, he'd almost started to believe that he would never get back to his family again. Living in his guilt for so long, he'd almost started to believe that he didn't deserve to be reunited with them, anyway. He'd almost convinced himself that he would never be able to gain forgiveness, would never be able to move on. He was more than grateful now, after all this time, to finally be able to let go of that mentality.

Oncie was amazed at how things could change like that. The environment had started out as a thriving paradise, and had been reduced to nothing but a darkened graveyard for what had once stood tall and proud. But now, all that was changing and it was turning back into what it once was - maybe even stronger than before. Everything was coming full-circle; maybe that meant that the Once-Ler himself could change, too. It comforted him to know that he was a different man from the young, impetuous boy that he'd left behind all those years ago. He was older now, wiser, and if he'd known back then what he knew now, maybe it all could've been different.

"I could say the same thing about you," Oncie responded to his daughter, his voice a little uneasy and racked with tremors as he tried to decide whether or not he wanted to laugh or burst into tears. It had been a long time since something so wonderful had happened to him. It was like everything that had become unraveled was finally starting to get sewn back up again. It was nice to know that all these years of hoping and working towards that goal had paid off. "I missed you so much."

Giving a little laugh, Mayzie pulled back comfortably from the embrace, a warm smile on her face. "I know you've been here waiting a long time for me," she said. "I hope I'm what you wanted." Unable to help herself, she bit her lower lip, an incredible nervousness suddenly overwhelming her.

"Are you kidding?" he answered, humor coloring his gravelly voice. "Of course you are! I-I mean, all this time I never even thought I deserved a family like you. I always thought maybe you and your mother needed better than me." He swallowed hard, blushing a little. He didn't quite know why he was so readily willing to admit all this to his daughter that he hadn't seen for years, but for some reason, it just felt right to be authentic with her instead of being so enigmatic all the time. "I should be the one asking if I'm good enough for you."

The smile on Mayzie's face broadened, and she shyly ducked her head. "You are," she admitted, reaching out for a brief second to pat him on the shoulder. "Don't worry, Dad."

The blush on the Once-Ler's face deepened at this, and he sighed happily, reaching for Norma's hand. The four of them seemed to understand all at once that there wasn't a lot of time to waste, and they began to walk towards Thneedville at an almost reverant pace. It still seemed as though all this information was still sinking in, for all of them. Not a single one of the group could quite believe what was going on - except perhaps Norma, who only looked content and proud, as if she'd known from the beginning that everything would have a happy ending.

Well, didn't that just figure?

Time changed a lot of things: people, places, and everything in between. But some feelings never changed, and he was reminded of that fact as he gazed down at his wife, his Norma. There she was beside him at last, clutching onto his hand with her own tiny fingers as if the world depended on it . . . and he wouldn't ever want to be anywhere else in the world because of it. Everything was finally working itself out just the way he'd always wanted it to. He didn't have money, or fame, or all of the success he'd had as a young man, but in a lot of ways, now he had even more than he'd ever gotten before. He finally had that one thing he'd always been searching for: love.

Maybe everything that he'd ever really wanted hadn't actually been that far away from him to begin with. He'd just been looking in all the wrong places, trying to be fulfilled by all the wrong people. And that never worked out for anybody, did it? Back then, when he'd just been an impulsive young upstart on his way to glory, he hadn't really stopped to consider all the specifics like that. It had almost gotten to a point where he'd thought that he wouldn't even really need genuine love in the first place, as long as he got the applause and praise and all-around acceptance he was searching for. But he knew better now; he knew now that he couldn't possibly have been more wrong in thinking that sort of thing.

And now, everything could finally be so much better than it ever was before. He had enough faith in his family to believe that they could become close again, and everything would settle into the sort of comfort that he hadn't known in a long while. It would take effort, of course - he'd learned that nothing ever really happened unless you decided to take action and set things in motion yourself - but he was willing to work towards that goal. All the worst was finally behind them; now that the environment was growing again, so could their relationships with one another, just like they'd always wanted but never gotten the chance.

So, it was with that faith always in the back of his mind that the Once-Ler clung to his wife's hand, walking towards the town that had shunned him for years. The time had come to move forward, and step into the light while leaving his old mistakes behind. And as he glanced around at his family, all of them finally reunited despite everything, he couldn't help but think . . .

Being back in the sun had never felt so good.


A/N: And so spells the end of my very first multi-chapter fic, both on this site and for this fandom, "How Bad Can I Be". Writing this story has been an absolute joy, and I have to admit, it is a little bit bittersweet to see it come to an end. I wanna take this time to send a huuuuuge thank-you to all my readers and reviewers - I was so glad to hear from you guys after every chapter update! You guys are amazing! And if you're wondering, I definitely plan on continuing to write for this fandom. :D Count on more multi-chapter fics (possibly a sequel to this one . . . ?) and one-shots in the future! There will definitely be lots of Once-Ler in future fics, but I'm also hoping to write more for Ted and Audrey because I love those cute stinkers. ^.^ Anyways, thanks again and I hope you enjoyed the fanfiction!