I'll need a source that isn't end of life.
That is why you pay the price at Digikey
a source for small plastic lenses and use $0.15 red LEDs.
I think you might struggle at that.
Why is a laser diode so much fussier than a standard diode?
The following four possibilities exist for the laser diode drivers inside laser pointers. (Unless otherwise noted, this applies to red laser pointers, not the DPSS green types with their high power laser diode pump requirements.)
Series resistor: There is no active regulator. A resistor limits current to a safe value with a fresh set of batteries. The laser diode is driven like an LED. As the batteries are drained, current decreases proportional to the difference between the battery voltage and the diode drop (about 2 V) divided by the resistances. Since output power and thus brightness would also decline dramatically with battery use, this approach is only found in the cheapest of laser pointers. See the section: Laser Pointer with a Resistor for a Regulator.
Constant current: Laser diode current is set to a safe value between threshold and maximum. This takes care of battery voltage variations but still would have problems with changes in the laser diode output with temperature. This is rarely, if ever, found on red laser pointers but is used for green laser pointers since the high power pump diodes for the DPSS laser module do not have or need optical feedback for adequate regulation.
Optical feedback - unregulated reference: Some laser diode drivers use the monitor photodiode to control laser diode current but do not have constant voltage source like a zener diode circuit to use as a reference. This is fairly safe for the laser diode as long as the correct battery types are used. For these, output brightness will vary somewhat with battery voltage and will thus decline as the batteries are drained.
Optical feedback - regulated reference: The best designs (and all those using IC driver chips) will maintain nearly constant output power until the batteries are nearly exhausted.