Iron on the Outside, Father Within @bluerowley
The Challenger

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A large, muscular gorilla snarled as he charged a couple of the younger males in the family. The two blackback males turned and ran, uninterested in a challenge or a fight at the moment, but the beastly gorilla did not give up so easily, and he kept running after them until he was close enough to grab one and fling him aside, knocking him to the ground. The gorilla roared as he raised his hands to slam down on the fallen ape, but the other blackback grabbed the aggressor from behind, keeping him from striking his friend.

Canines were flashed as the two struggled against the other before the larger ape managed to throw the smaller male over his shoulder. The distraction was enough for the fallen blackback to roll over and shuffle away, and the two apes tried to run away once more, dodging around the larger male that tried to block their retreat, snarling, and flashing his canines all the while.

A short and demanding roar sounded above the three apes, and they all looked up. Kerchak was on higher ground, staring down at the apes with a sneer that said, "this fight better end or else." The two blackbacks ran off, more than happy to obey, while the larger ape watched them go before he glared up at Kerchak. The two massive apes glared at each other for a moment before the lighter furred male huffed and stormed away, leaving a four-toed footprint in his wake.

Kerchak sighed and turned back toward where the rest of the family was resting. He swept his eyes over his territory, looking for any more disturbances or upsets. All seemed quiet at the moment, but he had a deep feeling that the peace would not hold much longer today.

Suddenly, Kerchak startled as two ape children ran under him, and he smiled as he watched Kaphi chase Tarzan around his legs, the little two-year-old trying her best to catch her older brother.

Tarzan dodged under Kerchak and ran around one of his father's massive arms, hiding for a moment as he peered around his father's arm to see where Kaphi had gone.

Kaphi slowed to a slow shuffled as she followed Tarzan under their father. He disappeared though, so she looked around in confusion before she spotted Tarzan's head peek out from around Kerchak's arm. She laughed as she charged for him, forcing Tarzan to retreat, and run back toward the family, zigzagging between nests and groups chatting about one thing or another. More gorilla children joined the chase as Tarzan passed them, and they pursued Tarzan with enthusiasm, their mothers shaking their heads fondly.

Tarzan jumped for his nest where Kala was munching on fruit and roots. He barely had a second to ask his mother for cover when five little apes jumped on him, burying him under their bodies and pinning him to the floor.

"Okay, okay," Tarzan's muffled voice called out from under them, "you got me. You win, you win!"

The apes thumped their chests victoriously before climbing off Tarzan and running off, all save for Kaphi, who hung on to her brother as he sat up. She smiled before letting herself fall off Tarzan's shoulder and landing on her back in the soft leaves of the nest, flashing a challenging smile at her brother, an invitation to wrestle.

"You think you're so tough," Tarzan said playfully before tickling his sister.

Kaphi squealed and tried to roll away, but Tarzan kept her still with his feet.

"Mercy for Kaphi," Kaphi pleaded between laughs.

"Okay," Tarzan agreed, letting his sister up. "But just this once."

Kaphi laughed and jumped into Kala's arms. Kala threw her into the air and caught her again, earning more laughs from the toddler. Another toddler ape ran over toward the family, and Kaphi jumped down and chased after the other young ape. Kala watched her go for a moment before looking at Tarzan, who was picking out some fruit from the selection she had collected earlier that afternoon.

"You are very good big brother, Tarzan," Kala praised her son.

"You think so, Mom?" Tarzan asked, smiling up at his mother.

"I know so," she said, pulling her son into an embrace. She squeezed him playfully. "I am so proud of how you treat your sister, even when it seems like she is doing nothing else but following you."

"She's been better about that," Tarzan said, looking over his mother's shoulder to watch his sister chase her friend. "You were right about her finding her own friends and favorite things to do. As much as I love playing with her, I like seeing her make her own friends, too."

"You know, I felt very much the same way with you when you were younger," Kala said.


"Yes. You struggled a lot more in your earlier years with making friends, but seeing you now, running with the other apes and playing, that makes me very happy. You're growing up so fast."

"Guess I'll be leaving the nest soon, huh, mom?"

"You're not growing up that fast!" Kala said. She tickled her son, trapping him down to do so. "If I had it my way, you'd never grow up any bigger than you are now."

"I can't stay little forever," Tarzan tried to argue while also trying to avoid his mother's ticklish fingers.

"I'll find a way," Kala argued back before releasing her son from his torment. "But if I can't, you're growing into a fine, young ape, Tarzan. I am very proud of you."

Tarzan hugged his mother before climbing down. He jumped away from the nest, only to be caught one-handed mid-air by his father.

"Hold up a minute," Kerchak said as he dropped Tarzan back in the nest before climbing in himself, sitting next to Tarzan.

"Dad," Tarzan complained. "I'm supposed to meet up with Terk and Tantor now."

Tarzan tried to jump away again, only for Kerchak to snatch him once more, lifting him back toward the nest. Tarzan allowed himself to slip off Kerchak's hand in an attempt to get away, but Kerchak was quick to grab his leg, and Tarzan dangled upside down for a moment.

"Will you be still?" Kerchak asked as he righted his son and set him in the nest. "It's like trying to hold a little frog with you. I need to talk to you."

"About what?" Tarzan said, preparing himself one last time to leap out of the nest.

Kerchak pushed down gently on Tarzan's back, pinning his son down so he wouldn't jump away again. Tarzan looked up at his father with a curious look.

"Tarzan, I need your full attention," Kerchak said, giving Tarzan a stern look.

"Um, okay," Tarzan said, a little apprehensive now.

Kerchak let Tarzan go and waited as Tarzan sat up and turned to face him, tilting his head to one side as he waited for Kerchak to speak. Kala also gave Kerchak a concerned look.

"I have a feeling one of the other male apes may try something soon," Kerchak said.

"What do you mean?" Tarzan asked while Kala looked even more concerned.

"I mean one of them may challenge my leadership over the family," Kerchak clarified. "And that can mean trouble for the other apes in the family, especially the young ones who could be easily injured. Should any disputes or fights happen between any of the male apes or myself, you make sure you get yourself and your sister somewhere safe, preferably up high. Can you do that, Tarzan?"

"Of course, Dad," Tarzan agreed readily. He frowned. "Why would anyone want to challenge you anyway? You're the greatest leader ever."

"I'm flattered," Kerchak said, smirking at his son. "And perhaps nothing will happen at all, but I'd rather be safe than sorry. So, remember what I told you."

"If any of the males start fighting," Tarzan recited, "get to safety with Kaphi."

"Very good," Kerchak dipped his head in approval. "You are now free to leave."

Tarzan grinned and leaped out of the nest, taking off through the trees toward the river. Kerchak sighed as he watched Tarzan run off, then glanced around the family grounds once more.

"You really think there may be a challenge?" Kala asked him.

"Many of the males are on edge," Kerchak answered her. "And Tublat is the reason. He keeps picking fights with the other males, trying to assert his dominance and power. It's only a matter of time before he gets the courage to come after me. I may need to intervene should he act up again. I need to put an end to this before it gets someone killed."

"Tublat has grown in size and strength over the last few years," Kala said. "Grown even in anger, but not in maturity."

"I just don't want someone else to get hurt or caught in the crossfire, especially the young children. Our children."

"Tarzan is a smart child, he'll do exactly as you've told him." Kala nuzzled up against Kerchak. "Please be careful."

"Always," Kerchak said, resting his head atop his mate's.

Meanwhile, Tarzan, Terk, and Tantor splashed playfully in the shallow part of the river, Terk on Tantor's back and reaching down to splash water at Tarzan. Tantor used his trunk to splash at Tarzan while Tarzan used both his arms to attack both his friends with water. They laughed playfully even as they drenched themselves.

Finally, they crawled out of the water and shook themselves off. Tarzan remembered what he had talked to Kerchak about earlier and brought it up to Terk.

"Dad thinks someone might try to challenge him today," Tarzan told his friend as she wrung out some longer ends of her hair. "Who do you think it might be?"

"Eh, who knows?" Terk shrugged. "I would bet all my bananas that it's probably that Tublat, he's always picking on everyone else, and he chases us gorilla kids around sometimes. But then again, maybe not."

Terk shrugged before walking back toward the family grounds, Terk and Tarzan following her.

"What do you mean, a challenge?" Tantor asked. "Like when you and Terk wrestle?"

"Yeah, but it's scarier than playing," Tarzan said, thinking back to when Mama Gunda and her sons had fought Kerchak—twice.

"That's because a challenge is a fight to the death," Terk said, waggling her fingers dramatically. "It's a battle to prove who the best leader would be."

"Someone's going to die?" Tantor exclaimed.

"That didn't happen before," Tarzan said. "Kerchak let those two buffoons go."

"That's because Kerchak is so good, that they know if they keep fighting, they will die," Terk reasoned confidently. "That's how great of a leader he is. No one has ever beat Kerchak, but if someone really wanted to, and they didn't back down when Kerchak gives them a chance, Kerchak would have to kill them. It's how it goes. To really win a challenge, you either kill the challenger or you chase them away while they cower in terror. That's the only way to finish the fight for good."

Tarzan thought back to when Kerchak had first faced off the Gunda boys, when Kerchak had been severely injured and left bleeding. He shivered at the thought of anyone doing something similar to Kerchak again, or worse, killing Kerchak. Was that why Kerchak had been so on edge earlier? Did he know who the challenger was? Was he afraid of the challenger? What if it was Tublat? Tarzan had seen that ape charge some of the older males a couple of times, and Tublat was no joke. He was a really big ape too, probably as big as Kerchak.

"What if Dad loses?" Tarzan's eyes widened. "What if the challenger kills him?"

"Then we'd all be in trouble," Terk said honestly. "Us kids, at least. I heard Flynt say that his cousin from another troop watched their leader fall, and then the new leader went after all the kids. Flynt's cousin was the only survivor."

Tarzan gasped.

Terk finally noticed Tarzan's aghast face, and she smiled apologetically and patted his back.

"Hey, lighten up. No one's ever beat Kerchak. You've seen your old man in action. He'll be fine. Any challenger stupid enough to take him on doesn't stand a chance. Kerchak beat two apes at once. Remember, buddy?"

Terk elbowed Tarzan as she nodded her head. Tarzan breathed a sigh of relief at that thought. His father was pretty tough. He'd be fine. He was always fine. He always stood back up, no matter what, so this time would be no different. Tarzan nodded his head and smiled at Terk. They continued their way back to the family while Tantor veered off toward his herd, waving goodbye with his trunk. As they reached the family, Kaphi was quick to spot her brother and came charging. Terk elbowed Tarzan once more, trying to keep the mood light.

"Look out!" Terk shouted. "It's the abominable Kaphi! Careful, Tarzan, if she bites you, you'll turn into a brainless monster."

Terk took off, and Tarzan laughed and ran away from Kaphi as she came closer, Kaphi giggling as she chased after the two older apes.

The evening was peaceful, and dinner offered no surprises. Tarzan did catch Kerchak glancing in Tublat's direction every now and then, and he swallowed his food dryly, nearly choking on a root, which caught Kerchak's attention, and he patted his son's back, asking him if he was all right. Tarzan smiled up at Kerchak with a nod, but the butterflies in his stomach made no more room for food, so he stopped eating and simply waited until the rest of the family was done eating.

As night drew near and no excitement happened, Tarzan felt himself relax just the slightest as he curled up next to Kala and Kaphi for bed. Kerchak was making his rounds, and Tarzan watched his father until he disappeared. Maybe nothing would happen after all. Maybe it really was stupid of anyone to dare take on Kerchak. Tarzan closed his eyes, and sleep pulled him away from his thoughts.

Sleep did not claim hold of him for long, however, and Tarzan awoke an hour or so later. He yawned and sleepily looked over at the empty side of the nest, and he blinked. Where was Kerchak? He would usually be back from his night patrol and sleeping with his family by this time. What if something had happened to him?

Tarzan gulped, then slithered out from Kala's warm embrace, carefully stepping over Kaphi as he did so. He glanced around the grounds first, looking for any sign of Kerchak around the mothers and their children, but he did not see the great ape. Knowing the males tended to sleep surrounding the mothers and children if not with their mates, Tarzan tiptoed through the family toward the outer edge of the grounds where many of the males liked to sleep.

He paused when he heard movement. Quickly, he hid behind a tree. When there was more silence, he peered around it.

Tublat was pacing several feet away in the trees. He looked agitated and he grunted every now and then. Tarzan glanced around for any sign of his father, but he did not see Kerchak around.

"What you doing, Tarzan?" Kaphi whispered as she appeared next to him, looking around the tree as well.

"Kaphi," Tarzan whispered harshly. He yanked her back behind the tree. "What are you doing out of the nest? It's bedtime."

"What you doing out of nest?" Kaphi asked back with a cheeky smile.

Tarzan sighed. Well, she had him there. Tarzan kept a hand on Kaphi to keep her close while he took one last look around the tree. If Kerchak didn't show, maybe everything was fine, and he could just go back to the nest with Kaphi and fall back to sleep.

However, as he watched Tublat pause in his pacing, the large ape slowly glanced in the direction of the family, the moonlight reflecting off his one red, gleaming eye. Tublat let out an angry roar and charged.

Tarzan gasped and pulled back around the tree, hugging Kaphi as the angry ape leaped past them, heading right for a sleeping blackback, who startled awake at the sound and rolled over just in time to avoid Tublat's fists. The family woke at the noise and several of them began climbing trees as Tublat targeted the other males, chasing them through the trees and attacking them as he could reach them.

Tarzan pulled Kaphi closer, encouraging her to climb on his back, then he climbed up the tree they were leaning against. Tarzan climbed as high as he could so he was a safe distance from any possible ground attack. He pulled Kaphi off his back, but she still clung to him in fear as she watched the apes fight below. Tarzan saw a few other children in adjacent trees, including Terk, Mungo, and Flynt. They shared unsure looks before staring back down at the fight.

Tublat lashed out at everyone who was still on the ground, but the males did try to help each other and attacked Tublat when he managed to grab one of the apes. But Tublat was powerful and threw everyone off himself and landed hard blows on the other males. As he managed to grab one ape in a choke hold, Kerchak appeared on a higher ledge, and he snarled down at Tublat.

"Tublat," Kerchak growled. "Get away from him."

Tublat smirked and shoved the ape away.

"Whatever you say, Kerchak. I was looking for a bigger challenge anyway."

Kerchak jumped down and faced Tublat, both apes standing to their full height and sizing each other up.

Tarzan held his breath as the two apes lunged for each other, rolling around and flashing their canines. It was too hard for him to tell who had the upper hand from where he was in the tree, and the cries and chants of the gorilla family cheering on Kerchak drowned out the scuffle below. Tarzan leaned forward as he watched the fight.

It was so close. One minute, Kerchak was knocking down Tublat, the next minute, Tublat was knocking down Kerchak. Finally, Kerchak managed to get an exhausted Tublat into a tight hold, and he muttered something brief. After a second, Tublat muttered the same thing back.

Kerchak released Tublat, who sank to the ground, and Kerchak walked away triumphantly.

Tarzan let out his breath, but the relief was short lived as he watched Tublat break off a branch and charge Kerchak while the ape's back was still turned.

"Kerchak!" Kala cried as Tublat struck Kerchak down.

"Dad!" Tarzan cried while Kaphi screamed.

Fear filled Tarzan's chest at the thought this might be Kerchak's last battle, that he might lose his father. Thinking fast, Tarzan looked up and spotted several coconuts. He jumped up and grabbed the trunk of the tree with his feet. He used both hands to snatch a coconut off the tree and throw them down at Tublat in rapid succession, just as the ape was about to smash Kerchak in the head.

The coconuts struck the ape in the nose one after the other, making him drop the branch to clutch at his nose painfully. Tublat glanced up in the direction the coconuts had come flying from.

The ape children in the surrounding trees burst out in fits of laughter. Tarzan grabbed one more coconut and dropped down to where Kaphi was still sitting. He toyed with the coconut threateningly, prepared to throw it at Tublat, who glared at him.

"Nice shot, Tarzan," Mungo said while smirking at Tublat.

"You hairless runt," Tublat snapped. "You broke my nose!"

Tublat leaped for Tarzan, who dropped the coconut and grabbed his sister, swinging her to his back and retreating further up the tree. He looked back in time to see his father slam into Tublat, stopping him from going after Tarzan and Kaphi.

Kerchak threw Tublat aside roughly, tossing him down a slope, and he landed face first in the dirt.

"Tublat," Kerchak snarled, "you're no longer apart of this family. Leave, and never return."

Tublat shakily stood to his feet. He bared his teeth at Kerchak.

"You won't live forever, Kerchak," he growled. "This tribe will be mine."

With those ominous words, Tublat ran away, leaving behind his four-toed prints as he did.

While Kerchak watched Tublat leave, Tarzan managed to slink up to his father with Kaphi at his side. He slowly reached out and brushed a hand against his father's arm.

"Dad, are you okay?" Tarzan asked.

Kerchak swung his head in his son's direction and glared at him.

"What were you thinking?" he demanded. "Drawing Tublat's attention like that—you nearly got yourself and your sister killed."

"I didn't want to see you get hurt," Tarzan admitted softly, his head lowered. "He was going to hit you again and I had to do something. I didn't want to lose you."

Kerchak felt his temper seep away at those words, and he sighed sympathetically.

"Be that as it may," Kerchak said, "it is my job to protect the family. You shouldn't have interfered. It is too dangerous for a child."

Kaphi started to climb up her father and Kerchak pushed her the rest of the way up to his back. She snuggled into him, still shaken slightly by the fight she had witnessed.

"I wasn't just going to sit there and watch him hurt you," Tarzan said defiantly, though he kept his head lowered. "If you protect the family, who's protecting you?"

Kerchak lowered his head, so he was eye level with Tarzan. He didn't say anything for a moment. Then, he smiled softly as he said, "You remind me a lot of myself."

Tarzan smiled back at his father. Kerchak turned just slightly.

"Hop up, let's get you both back to bed."

Tarzan didn't need a second invitation and he scrambled up his father and sat behind Kaphi. He was glad Kerchak didn't seem angry or upset at him anymore for interfering with the fight. Kerchak walked slowly back to his nest, addressing his family as he did so. "Let's all get some rest. We are safe now and it is late."

The troop cheered before heading back to their nests. Kala met Kerchak at their nest and smiled as the two kids slid off Kerchak's back and settled in, both adjusting the leaves to their liking. Kaphi pulled one of the large leaves loose and whacked Tarzan with it. Tarzan gave her a playful glare before he pulled a leaf free and whacked her back. The two quickly began hitting each other with the leaves repeatedly, laughing as they tried to dodge the other's attacks.

Kala snorted as she sat down and watched her children play, content to let them have their moment.

"Tarzan was very brave to try to assist you," Kala said as Kerchak sat next to her. "I was very worried for you when Tublat hit you from behind."

"I am perfectly fine," Kerchak said. "Tarzan was just as worried as you were when he drew Tublat's attention off me, which I still think was very foolish. He got me thinking though . . . I can always count on you having my back when it's needed, right? Not that it'll ever be needed, but—"

"You can always count on me, Kerchak," Kala said, snuggling up next to her mate.

"I thought so," Kerchak said, almost with what sounded like a sigh of relief.

Kala glanced at her children, smiling as they were finally settling down and curling up next to each other.

"You know," she began, "I think someone else has got your back, too."

Kerchak knew exactly who she was referring to, and he looked down at his son's sleeping form. His eyes softened, and he nodded his head.

"Yes, I believe so," he said.

And he couldn't be prouder of it.

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