Once-ler had been unusually tired since getting up that morning. He'd gone about his usual routine of breakfast and tidying up with shuffling steps. The movements were more difficult. The Lorax noticed immediately and chalked it up to exhaustion from a late night before. The old man had slept little, his thin frame shaken with the painful hacking of dirtied lungs.
He was still coughing throughout the morning, even as he shuffled through the yard to tend the tiny saplings springing through the new grass. He paused every few moments, coughed into his fist, and sighed under the watchful gaze of the guardian.
The Lorax worried only a little, until the old man stumbled and went to his knees, his watering can spilling over the grass next to him. From his knees he crumpled face first into the dirt and the Lorax was by his side in an instant. "Hey! Hey, beanpole, you alright? Didn't break a hip, did ya?" he joked as he helped Once-ler roll onto his back. The old man looked startled and he lay breathing shallowly as he stared up at the sky. "Kid?"
"I...I can't...breathe..." he wheezed out. The Lorax was confused by this.
"Whaddya mean? Why not?" he asked. The distant sound of an engine caught his ear and he glanced toward the road. The Wiggins woman was supposed to visit that day. He wasn't sure the old man was up to it. He looked back down at Once-ler, who was pulling at the thneed around his neck in an attempt to loosen it.
"Not...working..." He turned his eyes pleadingly to his friend. The growing fear in his gaze nearly stopped his heart. Why was he looking at him like that? Something was wrong. "H-hel..."
"What? What is it?" It made no sense. What wasn't working? He'd never seen this before, not in the animals, not in a human...it frightened him a little. A voice called out to them from across the yard, startling him from his thoughts. He turned to see Norma pattering across the grass toward them. He watched the approach and after a moment realized that she was talking to him. "I...he...he just stopped." Even his own ears picked up on the disbelief in his voice. Did that even happen? Did humans just stop? No, they couldn't...it just didn't make sense! It didn't make sense at all...
Norma was puffing at his side in seconds. Even the fear in Once-ler's eyes didn't cover the joy in his face at seeing her. For a brief moment the Lorax was comforted.
Then the coughing started again. It was a wet, heavy sound, as if his lungs had been glupped up recently. He saw Norma's face sag a little. She looked suddenly sad and the small comfort vanished. "How long has he been like this?" she asked. Her fingers shook as she sought out the old man's hand.
"Since last night."
"And you didn't call anyone?"
"Why would I call anyone? He said it wasn't bad. Besides, it's just a cough. He's been doing it for years." She shook her head at him and her forehead wrinkled in distress. "I suppose we should call Ted. I don't think there's time, though." The Lorax laid a tiny hand on his friend's forehead. He was cool to the touch. Faded blue eyes stared distantly back at him. "Maybe it's better that he isn't here..."
"H-Here for what?" Norma looked at him pityingly. After a moment her face soften and she sighed.
"You've never seen a human die, have you?" she asked in a thin voice. The Lorax said nothing, as he dropped his gaze back to the Once-ler. He looked very tired. Making a small noise of distress, Norma covered her face with her free hand.
"Sure I have..."
"Not like this." The old man's eyes focused hazily as she spoke. He was listening, and there was something like envy in them. "You'll never change. You'll never grow old..." His gaze slid to the side. The air was still and the tiny saplings stood happily erect all around them, His eyes rested on a pink one next to his head and a smile crept across his face.
Things would get better, whether he was there to see it or not. He was resigned to this. He knew he was dying. How he knew this, the Lorax didn't care. All that mattered was that he was leaving. He was losing the Once-ler again.
"No." He didn't see the pity in Norma's face. He didn't see the faraway look that stole into the old man's eyes. He was stricken with familiar grief, only it was not so familiar anymore. It stung sharply and deeply and the guardian didn't know quite what to do with himself. "No, this isn't going to happen! Not while I'm here..."
"Mustache." Once-ler wheezed and coughed again.
"You hang on, kid, I'm gonna-"
"Lorax." His voice had not momentarily strengthened. It was still frail and growing ever quieter. The use of his proper name surprised the Lorax into silence and he stopped mid-sentence. "Sometimes...it just can't be helped." The Lorax looked at him. There were tears welling in his eyes, but the old man looked calm. Ready.
Sometimes it just can't be helped.
"Oh." was all he said. Understanding was slowly coming to him. Nothing lasted forever. No one lasted forever. Not the valley, not the humans, even the Lorax himself would one day be forced to move on to who knew where. Norma stifled a sob into her hands and scooted closer to them. Shifting his gaze to the sky, Once-ler stared off into the endless blue he had missed for so many long years. For several long minutes his labored breathing was the only sound as the three of them huddled together in the sunny grass.
"I'm...glad you're here." It was barely more than a whisper. Norma was still clinging to his hand. She pressed the back of his hand into her cheek and tears spilled over it.
"I love you, Once," she murmured. It was a quiet goodbye, and it was all she needed. She clung to him and the Lorax took his other hand. Once-ler made no more effort to speak, but smiled at them in a distant sort of way. The three of them sat together, taking comfort in each other's presence.
The morning passed slowly, even as the day wore on and his labored breathing had faded away. The valley slowly grew and bloomed, taking small steps toward it's recovery.