Iron on the Outside, Father Within @bluerowley
Keeping Close

I know these first couple chapters are short, but they will get longer as we dive deeper into the relationship between Tarzan and Kerchak. Enjoy the next chapter.

Morning came swiftly, the sun barely rising above the mountains when Kerchak rose and stretched. He looked down at Tarzan, who was curled up in a corner of the makeshift nest. The child was still in a deep sleep, his lashes against his tanned cheeks. Kerchak huffed and scanned the surrounding trees.

Early birds chirped and cawed, zigzagging through the still lifting fog to catch bugs and worms. Kerchak climbed down the tree to the slightly damp ground below, sniffing the air for any morning predators. Most predators preferred nighttime to do their hunting, however, there were cases when a hungry animal chose to strike in the daylight, particularly targeting weak or young prey. All seemed safe.

"Tarzan!" Kerchak yelled up the tree.

Tarzan gasped and nearly rolled out of the nest, but he caught the branch before he fell over with a small hand. He pulled himself up and scurried down the tree, jumping the last bit to the ground. He brushed some hair out of his eyes and looked up at Kerchak with an uneasy smile.

"G'morning, Kerchak," he said.

Kerchak snorted disapprovingly in response. "We must keep moving swiftly. There is much ground to cover. Let's go."

Tarzan nodded, his smile fading, and he quickly followed Kerchak, who started walking down a trodden path. As they started their journey, Tarzan's stomach growled loudly. Kerchak looked down at the boy. Tarzan's eyes widened and he said, "Sorry."

Kerchak sighed. He should probably feed the child. As a matter of fact, he was a bit hungry himself. He looked up, spotting several fruits that could serve as breakfast for them: plums and oranges mostly. Looking down, he saw a patch of cassava leaves and roots. Leading Tarzan over to it, he broke several roots off, leaving them on the ground for Tarzan to pick through while he climbed up a tree to gather fruit. He knocked several plums and oranges to the ground, noting that Tarzan was collecting them into a large pile. While he foraged the trees, Kerchak ate several bugs as well, knowing Tarzan was rather picky about eating the creepy crawlers from his observations of the boy with Kala.

Climbing down from the tree, Kerchak spotted a wild berry bush and broke off a good chunk of the bush, carrying it over to where Tarzan was munching on a cassava root and dropped it on the large pile of gathered food. Tarzan eagerly picked some berries to eat, the rest of his root forgotten.

They ate their breakfast in silence before both were satisfied and full.

"Now let's move," Kerchak instructed, leading the way back to the family. They had a lot of ground to cover and Kerchak would not allow himself to be slowed down by the hairless ape.

They walked on for hours, the sun slowly rising until it reached its highest point in the sky, beating down on the ape and child. Tarzan was starting to slow down once again, falling several paces behind. Kerchak glanced back, narrowing his eyes at the boy. Kala just had to keep him—why couldn't she see that Tarzan would never be one of them. He would always be slower, weaker, and a burden. No matter how many years he spent with the gorillas, he would never learn to be one of them. Kerchak closed his eyes, remembering when Kala had first brought the baby to the family. She had sung him a lullaby when he had started crying, a lullaby she had once sang to their own son before his death.

Tarzan was starting to lag even further behind, and Kerchak looked back at him.

"Keep up with me," he snapped. "You are too far behind."

"I'm trying," Tarzan said, shuffling faster until he was right behind Kerchak. "We've been walking forever."

"We have not and we've still a long way to go. If you are not with me, you are easy prey."

"Mom usually lets me ride her shoulders when I get too tired."

"Kala isn't here, and you need to learn to keep up with the family. You are getting too old and too big for such treatment."

"Yes, Kerchak," Tarzan said, lowering his head.

But as they walked on, Tarzan started slowing down once more, his stomach growling again for lunch and his body starting to ache from exhaustion. In all his time spent with the gorillas, they had never travelled nonstop for so long. Tarzan slowed down even more, and he came to a halt when he spotted a fallen banana on the ground, unopened and still ripe. He walked over to it and sat, peeling it and taking a bite.

Rustling in the bushes startled him and he jumped back, dropping the fruit. He peered into the dense jungle, his eyes squinting. The rustling continued, then Sabor, the leopardess, leaped out at Tarzan with a roar.

"Ahh!" Tarzan cried. He tripped over his feet before getting back up on all fours and running toward Kerchak, the leopard at his heels. "Kerchak!"

Kerchak looked back, realizing he was much further ahead than Tarzan, and now Sabor was chasing the child in his direction. Standing on two, he pounded his chest and roared before dropping back down.

Sabor hesitated, and it was enough for Tarzan to slip behind Kerchak, peering out behind the great ape. Sabor took a hesitant step back, deciding to circle around the larger gorilla, snarling. Kerchak turned as she did, Tarzan keeping behind Kerchak. Sabor roared and lunged for the ape, who grabbed it by the scruff of its back and threw it aside. Sabor pushed off a tree and charged again, climbing up on Kerchak's back and biting down on his shoulder. Kerchak roared.

Tarzan leaped up a tree, watching the fight from below.

Kerchak reached for the leopard and threw her off his back. Sabor hit the ground hard, but she stood up again. She snarled at Kerchak, but her eyes trailed up and she spotted Tarzan in the tree. Her eyes sparkled and she leaped over Kerchak, who was too slow to catch her. Tarzan gasped as Sabor climbed up the tree he was in and he started climbing higher.

Kerchak's eyes widened as he realized Sabor's new target. Roaring, he chased after Sabor crawling up the tree himself. His heart starting racing as he watched Tarzan slip down a high branch. Sabor snapped her jaws at Tarzan's heels, missing him by an inch. Tarzan managed to jump up the branch more, but he was out of tree left to climb. Tarzan eyed the distance between the branch he was on and the next one in a nearby tree. He'd never make it, Kerchak thought.

Kerchak was right behind Sabor now, but the leopard looked back and swatted at him with a hiss. Kerchak backed up slightly, then maneuvered himself to a branch adjacent to the leopard. He thought about kicking the branch Sabor was on, but he didn't want to shake Tarzan off. The boy did not have the grip of a young gorilla.

"Kerchak!" Tarzan called to him. The boy kept backing up on the branch, coming closer to the end of it. Sabor inched closer, a bit unsteady, but determined.

Kerchak looked to the nearby tree. While Tarzan would never make the jump, he knew he could. And he was large enough to reach for the branch Tarzan was on. He looked up at Tarzan and the stalking leopard. It was now or never.

Kerchak swung over to the opposing tree. He stood on the thick branch and reached for the high branch Tarzan was in. He grabbed the branch, Sabor hissing as Tarzan climbed on to Kerchak's shoulder and slid down to the main trunk of the tree, clinging to it so he didn't fall to the ground far below.

Kerchak pulled the branch down as far as he could. As Sabor prepared to leap for the ape, he released the branch. It swung back to its place, and Sabor lost her grip and tumbled down to the jungle floor, hitting several branches on the way as she tried to catch herself, clawing frantically. She managed to land on her feet, albeit crushing one of her paws under her. She purred softly as she raised her front paw and licked it. She glared up at Kerchak and roared before limping away.

Kerchak sighed and looked down at Tarzan. The child was shaken, but unharmed.

Kerchak glared at him.

"I told you to stay at my side," Kerchak scolded. He urged the child to climb down the tree and they both descended. "If you could learn to keep up, this wouldn't have happened."

"I'm sorry," Tarzan began. "I was trying to, but—"

"Do not argue with me. From now on, you will stay at my side while we get back to the colony and if you so much as lag a foot behind, I will not defend you from the next hungry predator."

Tarzan sniffed slightly, but they both made it down to the ground and walked side by side. Kerchak purposefully slowed his pace, even if it meant taking longer to return home, but he could not afford any more distractions. He had to return to his family in one piece, and for Kala, the child better return alive and healthy as well.

Tarzan did not seem to notice his slower stride, but he did seem to keep up much easier. He was quiet now, occasionally glancing up at Kerchak, but said nothing. As Kerchak allowed a quick stop at a waterhole for a drink and lunch, Tarzan looked up to him halfway through a banana.

"Thank you for saving me," he said.

Kerchak nodded his head, unsure of what else to say as he munched on some beans.

Tarzan continued with his lunch.

"We still have many days of travel ahead of us," Kerchak said. "Finish eating, and we shall continue for a while longer before resting for the night."

Tarzan nodded and opened another banana. Kerchak narrowed his eyes before pulling at some Bambara leaves on the ground, pulling up more Bambara beans. He tossed the pile to Tarzan and said, "Eat some beans as well. They will keep you fuller than the bananas will."

Tarzan made a face but began plucking the beans off the roots and eating them. Kerchak nodded in approval before eating more himself. Once they were full, Kerchak led the way onward, hoping to make up for lost time before nightfall. If today was a show of how this trip would be, he was no looking forward to it.

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