Fandom: The Last of Us
Characters: Joel & Ellie
Prompt: 5 of 8 prompts for puzzleprompts's August 2018 challenge. Prompts listed at the end!
Word Count: 1613
Summary: Ellie attempts to bond with Joel via a tree house. Takes place between the events of Summer and Fall.
Prompts: See list at end of fic :)
Crossposted to AO3 and FFN.
Ellie emerged from the spore-riddled house and scanned the back yard. “All clear!” she called back to Joel. He preferred to go first, but Ellie didn’t feel like waiting the few extra moments for him to remove his mask and put it away, so she started to search the yard. She was glad she didn’t need to fuss with one of those ugly contraptions herself! “Hey, maybe you should keep that thing on," she joked. "We have another house to search. Look!”
Joel looked where she was pointing. “That’s a big one.”
“Yeah…” Ellie hurried over to the tree that held up the biggest tree house she’d seen so far on this journey. The house was sort of woven into the branches, as if the tree were giving it a hug. “I’ve never been in a real tree house before,” she mused.
“No? Guess we’d better go up, then.”
Ellie regarded the tree skeptically. “How? Man… they built all this and couldn’t even make a decent ladder for it?”
“What do you mean? Looks decent to me.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.” The ‘ladder’ consisted of a series of boards nailed flat against the trunk. “Where do you even grab on?”
“Well, look – there’s a rope, too.” There was indeed a thick rope dangling there in front of the ladder. Joel gave it a couple tugs and appeared to find it sturdy enough for his liking. “You take it like this…” Ellie watched him use it to pull himself up, one hand over the other, while his feet ascended the rungs of the so-called ladder. He dropped back down after a few steps. “Wanna try it?”
Ellie frowned at it. If it can hold Joel’s weight, it can certainly hold mine… and the house was a bit too high up to simply have Joel boost her. She took the rope from Joel, but before she could even take a step—
“Hang on. I think this house might be occupied.”
“What?” Ellie looked up, trying – and failing -- to see what Joel was seeing. He certainly wasn’t behaving like there was a potential threat right over their heads, either. The house was relatively big, yes, but it was very… well, open. Most of the wall panels were half-sized, and even the few that weren’t had windows – or, rather, glassless holes. Some of the boards looked damaged, and the roof was busted in a couple places; the house had definitely seen better days. This is no place to make a home! There’s nowhere to hide... and Joel’s losing it. “Um, I think you’re hallucinating. There’s no one up there.”
“No humans, anyway,” Joel agreed. “But see that?” He pointed to a brown cord-like thing running up the side of the tree. “It’s a mud tunnel. Built from the ground all the way up into the house. Damn… I bet that’s why the wood’s in such sorry shape on this side.”
“That little bitty thing is a tunnel? For what? Ants?!”
“Termites. They hate light, see, an’ they make these things so they can go up and down all day, carryin’ the dead wood back down into the ground… they’re subterranean. Protects ‘em from predators, too.”
Joel sounded… not excited, exactly, but there were times where it really seemed like he enjoyed teaching Ellie things, and this felt like one of them. “Really? They make them out of mud?”
“Yep. Mud… an’ saliva, I think. We can see if they’re still with us…” He flicked his finger at the mud tube, breaking off a small chunk of it, then beckoned Ellie closer.
Ellie leaned in to take a closer look at the place Joel had exposed. “Whoa!” The little bugs were still going up and down in orderly rows, as if Joel hadn’t just fucked up their highway structure. “Are some of them gonna come out now and explore the rest of the tree?”
“Doubt it. They’re blind, too. They’ll jus’ keep followin’ the guy in front of ‘em.”
“Huh.” Ellie could listen to Joel talk about shit all day long. She just wanted him to keep talking. “How do you know so much about them, anyway?”
Joel chuckled a little. “Might call ‘em job security.” Before Ellie could ask him what he meant by that, he motioned toward the rope again. “Still wanna go up?”
She pondered that a moment. “Well… is there gonna be like a big swarm of them at the top?”
“Nah. An’ they don’ like people. They just eat the wood… they’d stay in the walls. Might be in the floor, though, too…”
“Why don’t they just eat the tree? Wouldn’t that be easier than going way up there?”
“Most of ‘em jus’ like dead wood. See, that’s nature’s way of takin’ care of… disposin’ of the dead stuff.”
“Oh yeah, huh. Like… maggots.”
“Exactly. We might as well see if anyone left anythin’ up there.”
“Something the termites don’t like! Okay.” Ellie grabbed the rope again and looked up warily.
Again, Joel stopped her. “Let me jus’ see how sturdy it is up top. The left side looks all right. They must be favorin’ the right.”
While Ellie watched from the ground, Joel actually went all the way up there, tested the floor near the entrance hole, then came back down, without saying a word. Oh, shit -- it’s bad? But now she really wanted to try it! “It looked pretty safe to me,” she protested as he dropped to the ground.
“Left side’s fine. Jus’ don’ go to the right… at least not ‘til I get back up there.”
“Uh… wait, you’re going back up? Why didn’t you just stay up there?” she asked, giving him a quizzical look.
“Well, someone has to catch you if you fall,” he teased.
“Pfff. I’m not gonna fall,” she replied breezily. But how sweet is that?? He totally didn’t have to come back down. She’d climbed over tougher obstacles before – and done so while Joel trotted on ahead without so much as a backward glance, even. Ellie couldn’t remember when he’d stopped doing that, but now she realized that he had. My presence doesn’t annoy the fuck out of him anymore. He even CARES… some. At least a little.
She and Joel both made it up with no trouble, and although that mud tunnel branched off all over the place up there, there were no visible termites. He said in the daytime, they would stay in the tunnels or in the wood, and if they wanted to extend or repair any of the tunnels, they’d do it at night.
Joel took a few experimental steps toward the ‘right wing,’ as he’d dubbed it (apparently, mansions had wings), and decided they should stick to the left. They’d found nothing of use, but Ellie liked the feel of the house; it was so high up that she could look around and see into four other back yards. Joel had pulled the rope up behind him so no one else could use it – as if he’d even let anyone get that close to the tree in the first place? And it was kind of cozy, too – she’d found a couple pillows to sit on (which made her wonder if people had tried sleeping up here), and she hoped to get Joel to hang out for a few minutes. Much as Ellie loved hearing him talk, she wanted to switch the subject to something a little more fun than insect habits. “It’s so cool up here. Did you have a tree house when you were a kid?” she asked as she shrugged off her back pack and settled herself on a pillow.
Joel paused by the ladder. “No. But I…”
Ellie waited a beat for him to finish that sentence. “But you what?” she prodded.
He glanced at her. “…nothin’.” His expression hardened back into its usual mask. He started to uncoil the rope from the trunk.
No no no, don’t leave yet! We just got here. I want you to keep talking! “Did you build one?” she guessed, desperate to soften him up again. I’ll even talk about termites some more if you want to…
He let the rope down the hole and headed down without looking at her again. “C’mon, we gotta get a move on,” he said tersely.
Ellie didn’t bother asking him to stay; she knew what that tone meant. Fuck! What did I say? He had seemed to be in a pretty good mood, talking quite animatedly about the fucking termites, but now there would be friction between them for at least the next hour or so. Ellie wondered if maybe he’d wanted to build one… maybe he’d imagined doing that for his son… the son he never got to have? Ellie could totally imagine him with a little boy… figured he probably wouldn’t know what to do with a girl. A girl with ribbons in her hair who wanted him to play dollies with her… no way -- but maybe a girl like ME… no, don’t go there, Ellie! Either way, Ellie thought Joel would make a pretty awesome dad, and it sucked that he didn’t get to be one.
“Ellie! Come on!”
“Coming!” she called down to him, sighing as she reluctantly stood up. She picked up her back pack and took one last look at the mud tubes, snaking this way and that over the walls. So much going on under there… and you can’t even tell by looking at it. Chip away at it and you get a glimpse… but the wall gets rebuilt. Blind… just going through the motions… What a sad life that must be.
Insects -- termites
Climbing/Rappelling -- navigating the tree house
Lyric from "Friction" by Imagine Dragons -- I modified it a little, though: "This is no place to [build your] home" ... but I did also use the title!
Parental -- Joel teaching/feeling protective of Ellie, Ellie's speculation at the end
Mask -- Joel's spore-protection mask. And while I did use the word figuratively later, I know this doesn't count to fit the "Object" prompt :)