Iron on the Outside, Father Within @bluerowley
Stranger Danger

A few days went by, and the Truce remained active, with the three gorilla families coexisting side by side within the safety of the deep, thick jungle. With much convincing on Tarzan's part, Kerchak allowed his son a little more freedom each day, giving Tarzan the chance to mingle with the other gorilla children, as long as he checked back in every so often. The other gorilla children's fascination with him dwindled a bit as they played together, though Mavuto's dislike of Tarzan never faded.

"You don't belong here," Mavuto told him during an apehunt. "You belong to those monsters!"

It unsettled Tarzan that creatures that looked like him could be so scary and deadly. He didn't want to be associated with an evil monster like that. He was having trouble sleeping at night due to visions of himself as a large giant towering over his family as they cowered in fear. It woke him from a restless slumber, and he would lay in the nest awake for the rest of the night, his turmoiled mind contemplating what he really was.

Perhaps this was his chance to see the kind of creature he was meant to be, the kind he should have been raised with. Maybe it was all a misunderstanding, and he could explain that to the gorillas. Maybe these strangers to the jungle meant no harm, and Mavuto's mother was an accident. And he would finally know what he was. That desire pulled on his heart in a way he was unfamiliar with.

For one thing, this was his home. His family. All he ever wanted and all he's ever known. He loved his father, mother, and his baby sister more than life itself, and he wouldn't give them up for the world. But he also had to know who he was. And if these strangers could tell him—maybe he'd understand himself a little better.

According to Mosi, Mavuto's father, the strangers were moving deeper into the jungle from the eastern mountain passes, where the jungle grew thick with afromosia trees. Tarzan knew the area well from the many times Kerchak had led the family through the pass to reach the waterfalls during the hot summer months. It wasn't a very long trip if he ran to it, and he was sure he could be back before Kerchak even knew he was gone. But just to be sure, he would make sure someone covered his absence. "Absolutely not!" Kaphi said with a glare.

"Come on, sis," Tarzan pleaded, "it won't be for long. I'll be back before even you realize I left."

"Dad will kill me. And then you. Besides, all the silverbacks said not to go near those . . . things. You could get hurt."

Kaphi tried to shuffle away but Tarzan leaped in front of her, stopping her from running off to her friends.

"I won't. I won't even get that close to them, just enough to get a peek and see what they're up to. This could be my only chance to figure out what I am."

"You're a gorilla," Kaphi said with affirmation.

"In name maybe, but what about in my blood?" Tarzan gave his best sad face. "Please, Kaphi? Will you do it for me?"

"Arghh!" Kaphi whined loudly, throwing her head back in annoyance. She sighed and her eyes softened. "Fine. I'll cover for you. But you better be quick and no funny business. You owe me one, big brother."

"I'll make it up to you," Tarzan promised with a grin. "I promise."

The next morning, Tarzan was ready.

"Where do you think you're going?" Kerchak asked as soon as Tarzan tried to run out of the nest. Tarzan paused, racking his brain quickly for a good excuse.

"Oh, just to catch up with Terk. We were going to play near the river."

Kerchak hesitated but he let out a sigh and said, "Stay close to the family grounds and make sure you check in with me every now and then, okay?"

"Yes, Dad," Tarzan agreed with a smile.

"Go ahead then."

Tarzan ran in the direction of the river while he knew Kerchak was still watching him. Many other gorillas were already awake and munching on breakfast while children chased each other around, so it was not unusual for Tarzan to be running off so soon in anyone's eyes. He could only hope that Kaphi had no problems covering for him. Terk would cover for him whether he asked her to or not—she always seemed to know the right answer to any of Kerchak's interrogations, so he was sure if she was questioned later, she would stick up for him, but he would hear from her later about not including her in this adventure.

It was for the best. Tarzan wouldn't be long anyway. This was going to be a quick peak and retreat.

He ran for miles through the trees, the sun inching higher and higher into the sky, gleaming through the thick brush and vines of the forest. Birds cawed above him, sharing the morning news of the day, while monkeys chitchatted about their latest troop drama. As he drew near the afromosia trees, the jungle fell silent. It was eerie, the way the noises all stopped at once. Tarzan slowed down to a crawl as he slinked his way forward, checking around every stump and under every root to make sure the coast was clear before proceeding.

There was a thick smell in the air, different from anything Tarzan was familiar with. It was strong, acidic, and burned his nostrils as he breathed the smell. He coughed slightly, trying to smother the sound behind a hand. A flicker of fire caught his eyes, and Tarzan nearly panicked, thinking of a forest fire that had occurred a few years earlier, but the fire stayed put a few yards ahead in the trees, swaying gently as if tamed. Frowning, Tarzan moved closer to the fire.

Meanwhile, Kaphi was busy slurping water from her hand at the edge of the river. The sun was high in the sky now, and the cold water felt nice trickling down her throat. She licked her lips, then leaned down to slurp up more water directly from the river when a deep voice made her freeze.

"Kaphi," Kerchak greeted as he walked up to her. "Have you seen your brother? He hasn't checked in with me yet and it's been quite a while."

"Tarzan? Umm, we're playing hide and seek," Kaphi said. "He just went off to hide but I'll get him for you. Ready or not, here I come!"

Kaphi glanced around as if deciding where to start looking first.

"He should have checked with me before starting a game with you," Kerchak said with annoyance. He sighed, however, and turned back toward the family grounds. "When you find him, send him my way."

"Of course, Daddy. I'll find him for you in no time."

Kerchak grunted in response, leaving Kaphi to play her game. When Kerchak was no longer in earshot, Kaphi let out a breath.

"Hurry up, Tarzan," she muttered under her breath.

The fire was so close now, and Tarzan stopped just inside the trees. The fire was in the center of a clearing in the trees, surrounded by stones that kept the fire trapped inside. There were four strange triangular objects set up in a half circle around the fire, and the rest of the clearing was filled with even more strange objects Tarzan had never seen before: tables, cages, traps, clothing hanging on a line, and two late eighteen hundred cars sitting near the edge of the trees. Tarzan hesitated, then nearly stepped out into the clearing to keep exploring when voices made him jerk back.

Then he saw them.

Creatures like him, a little different in skin color and hair, but otherwise, just like him! Five hairless apes that walked on two legs rather than four as Tarzan was accustomed to, but he knew he could walk like that, too, if he tried. The creatures were speaking in a language he wasn't familiar with, and one of them was carrying a dead animal by its hind legs, a hog by the looks, which made Tarzan shudder. Were they plaining on eating it? One creature carried a long stick. And what was all over these hairless apes? Some wore long black stuff on their legs while others also wore dark stuff on their chests, leaving only their arms and heads exposed. Strange.

"Where's Shen?" one of the hairless apes spoke. He and another man hoisted the hog kill on a table for prepping.

"Is he not with Wang and the others heading to the Savannah for ivory?"

"Shen didn't join them. He said something about checking the area for natives. He's been working on translating their language for a year now."

"Probably got himself speared, the idiot."

Tarzan could not understand what they were talking about, but he moved through the brush to get closer to where they were tying up the pig and staking him to the ground above the roaring fire. Tarzan frowned at the behavior. No other animal he witnessed ever treated prey like this before. The men were moving around the clearing, interacting with objects and trinkets. Tarzan moved as well, trying to keep the creatures in sight. What were they called? Where did they come from? How did he find this out?

The men were reviewing a map on a large drawing board set up near one of the cars. The map had several areas circled and crossed out, and there were scribbled notes along the edges.

One of the cars was close to the edge of the forest, and Tarzan sniffed at the metal object and nearly gagged at the smell that invaded his nose, burning his nostrils. The thing didn't seem alive though, so Tarzan crawled under the object, ignoring the smells that grew stronger around him. He was so close to these creatures now.

"After we get a few more tusks and furs, we'll do one last sweep for any gorillas in the area. I know we've got a nice sized one already, but a couple baby ones would be nice. I'm sure the doctors would appreciate it."

"We saw a few tracks a couple days ago." One man stepped forward and drew a line on the map. "Right around here. It seems they moved deeper into the forest, heading northwest. We follow that path, we may encounter a few more gorillas."

"That will be the last trek we do," the man who had spoken first said. He lit a blunt and began puffing before continuing. "We are already running low on food and water supplies; we've been here far too long as it is."

There was a shuffle in the trees, which made Tarzan jump while the other men merely glanced in the direction of the trees. Another hairless ape emerged with a basket of fruit. He wore blue pants and a white, sleeveless shirt. His black hair stuck up in all directions and his glasses were skewed on his face. He set the basket down on the table and approached the men with a mischievous grin.

"Shen, where have you been?"

"Gathering supplies from some of our native friends," Shen said. "I was learning so much about the land and its creatures that roam the night . . . like the jungle troll."

"Here we go again," a man muttered while a few others groaned.

"You should hear the way the natives talk of this beast," Shen said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a long bone like object, something Tarzan was sure looked a lot like a hog's tusk. "They gave me one of his horns—supposedly, it grants protection from the jungle troll."

"I'm sure it does."

"He'll come around, gentlemen," Shen went on. "Be warned. He is known for exacting revenge on those who hunt in his jungle without his permission. A terrifying creature even the jungle animals fear."

Shen pulled the map off the large drawing board, picked up a piece of chalk, and scribbled on the chalkboard beneath as his voice took on a musical edge.

"He's twice the size of three men

With thirty horns on his head

And he thinks human flesh is delicious

He stalks through the trees with loud, thundering feet

And his roar's like a tiger, ferocious!"

Shen had drawn a big ape like giant with thick arms and long claws on every finger, thirty horns sticking out of its head and neck, and sharp fangs in its agape mouth. He stomped around like the beast in question once it was done, holding his hands up like claws.

"Oh please! We didn't ask," one man said.

"It isn't true."

"Gentlemen," Shen continued, "would I lie to you?

He's a violent, angry hunter

With a voracious appetite

You want proof it ain't a lie?

Well, just wait until the night."

While the men scoffed and laughed at Shen's story, Tarzan studied the cartoonish picture on the drawing board. He had no clue what the creatures were talking about or what it was they magically made appear on the square thing, but it looked scary. He tilted his head at it, his brows furrowing in thought.

Kaphi licked her lips as she eyed the berry bush in front of her, her eyes sparkling. She opened her mouth and leaned forward, ready to take in a mouthful when she heard a throat clear behind her, forcing her to freeze.

"Still seeking out your brother?" Kerchak asked his daughter.

"Ohh," Kaphi said slowly. "Umm, he's really hidden himself this time."

Kaphi stood and dug through the berry bush in front of her before sitting down and offering her father an innocent smile.

"Nope, not in there," she said.

Kerchak growled under his breath before saying, "You're not hiding anything from me, are you, young missy?"

"No, Dad. We're still playing is all."

Kerchak narrowed his eyes at Kaphi but he turned away.

"As soon as you see him, send him to me," he said.

"Yes, Dad." Kaphi waited until he couldn't see her before she plopped down, plucking a berry off the bush. "If Dad doesn't kill Tarzan when he gets back, I will," she said before moodily throwing the berry in her mouth.

Tarzan wasn't sure what to feel about these creatures. They had so many dead animals lying around and many birds, monkeys, and snakes alive in cages. They had weird sticks and toys to play with and made strange noises. Feeling rather unfulfilled in his trip, Tarzan was about to head home when a ruckus from the trees caught his attention, and he froze from where he was under the car.

A car came flying through the trees, driving into the clearing with four men yelling and cheering in delight. In the back of the car was a cheetah in a cage, growling and spitting at everyone. Tarzan jumped back as the car parked near the one he was under. He had to move back some to see what was happening. The men jumped out of the car, joining the six men already at the campsite. They all gathered to the back of the car and smiled at the catch.

"I thought you went out for ivory, Wang," a man said.

"We were." The tallest man, Wang, pointed at the back of the car. "We got six tusks to add to our collection. But I bet someone back home wants an exotic pet . . . or a fur coat."

"It's a feisty one," Shen commented. "How are we getting that on the boat without getting bitten?"

"Very carefully." Wang looked off toward the fire. "Nice pig. I'm starving. Let's eat, men. Then we will plan our next move."

Tarzan watched all the men head over to the fire where they began cutting off sections of the pig with long knives. When they seemed preoccupied with eating, Tarzan moved out from under the car and toward the back of the new parked car. He glanced up at the cage.

Lying down in the back of the metal enclosure was a large cheetah, and it stared back at him inquisitively with eyes that seemed very familiar.

"I remember you," it said, startling Tarzan.

"You can talk?" Tarzan asked.

"Of course, as can you."

"I've never heard leopards talk before," Tarzan said with a frown.

"It is awkward for predator to converse with prey, so we do not. The leopards may not speak to you the same way I do not speak to antelope. You were the man-cub from a few years ago I ran into. I see you are still alive." The cheetah sat up in his cage, his tail curling around him.

"I remember that night. That was you? What were you doing so close to gorilla territory?"

"Man has invaded more and more of my homeland, forcing so many of us to share territory, food, or to move away. They take over land, hoard and protect their prey, and share little."

"What is man?"

"What is man? You are man, man-cub. Man is they." Cheetah looked in the direction of the man sitting around the fire eating. "Man is dangerous."

Tarzan gulped as he glanced at the men then looked back at Cheetah, listening intently as he finally learned what he was.

"Why are they dangerous?"

"Look around you. They kidnap animals from their home. Kill not just for food but to wear our coats. I've seen them kill elephants and take only their tusks. They are top predator, and they make sure we know it."

Tarzan followed Cheetah's gaze and gasped at the tusks in the back. He thought about Tantor and his family, and the thought made him shudder.

"Man is what you will grow up to be," Cheetah said.

"No," Tarzan shook his head.

"It can't be helped."

"No, I won't be like that." Tarzan jumped back and kept shaking his head. "I'm not man, I was raised by Kerchak and Kala, I'm one of the apes now. I'll never be man. I don't want to be like that."

Cheetah stared intently at Tarzan, focused and unwavering. It twitched its tail every few seconds, as if each move had purpose. Then, an ear flicked, and Cheetah blinked.

"Prove it," he said.

"Prove what?"

"That you are not man. Free me."

Tarzan hesitated, studying the cage. It was a large square metal box with several bars and rope that was tied in a huge knot at one end. There was a small wooden spike was shoved in a small latch hole. Tarzan gulped as he stepped closer.

"I don't know if I can," Tarzan said. "I don't know how."

"Try. You are of man blood; it is in you to do the same things man can do."

It made sense to Tarzan's ears, so he stepped closer, slowly putting a hand up on the back of the cold, metal car. He pushed himself up slowly, just in case the whole contraption was a trap, but nothing happened once he was all the way up in the vehicle. He tugged at the rope, then tried chewing on it, but it was like chewing straw leaves, dry and bitter, and pieces were getting stuck in between his teeth. He spat out what was in his mouth and tried pulling on the rope again.

As he studied the knot, he realized that two ends hung loosely from the knot. He grabbed one loose end and pulled, and the knot gave a little. Tarzan tried the other loose end and the knot fell free, the rope falling away from the cage. Now, just for the spike, which Tarzan was able to grab and yank out of the latch hole.

"What is going on over there?" a man called out.

"Run man-cub," Cheetah said, leaping out of the cage, throwing the door open as he did so, nearly knocking Tarzan off the back of the car. Tarzan caught himself at the last minute before he scrambled to his feet and scurried after Cheetah.

"It got loose!" someone shouted.

"What is that thing?" another said.

But Tarzan did not stop running. He kept going as fast as he could away from that awful place. Cheetah was long gone from sight, but Tarzan didn't care. He just wanted to get away and go home and never see those awful creatures again. The sun was starting to lower in the sky, and he had to get home before sunset or Kerchak would ground him for life for sure. Besides, all Tarzan wanted right now was his family—his true family.

Suddenly, he slid himself to a halt.

Cheetah was sitting on a rock facing him, as if he had been waiting for him.

"It seems you are not like man, after all, man-cub. Thank you."

"I told you I'm not like them. And my name is Tarzan. I am an ape-cub, not a man-cub."

"Tarzan of the apes," Cheetah said. "I shall remember your name and share your story among my kind. Your heroism will not go unpaid."

"Err, thanks? By the way, what's your name?"

"A cheetah's name is a sacred thing and is not shared with other animals outside the cheetah kingdom."

"Oh." Tarzan tried not to feel too disappointed.

"I must go, I have a long way to travel to get back home. Be safe, young Tarzan."

Cheetah trotted away, and even then, his feet were silent and swift. Tarzan decided he should get going in order to get back home in time too. He had already been away far longer than he had planned.

Kaphi watched everyone gathered around the family grounds munching away on a variety of greens and fruit, and she glanced around the edge of the trees worriedly, wondering when she should break the truth to her father. She walked a little closer to the river, hoping she might catch a glimpse of him. She'd give Tarzan a few more minutes before she spilled everything to Kerchak.


Or not.

Kaphi swallowed nervously as her father walked up to her once again.

"Any sign of your brother?"

"Well . . ."

Kerchak narrowed his eyes and rose to his full height, causing Kaphi to shrink down submissively.

"Where is your brother?" Kerchak demanded.

"Uhh . . ." Kaphi stammered, not wanting to betray Tarzan but also very nervous for her brother's safety.

"I'm here, I'm here," Tarzan said as he ran up to Kaphi and Kerchak, pausing next to his sister and panting.

"Tarzan!" Kaphi cried happily. Then, she growled through her teeth at him, "That was a very long game of hide and seek."

"Right," Tarzan said quickly, smiling innocently up at Kerchak. "I fell asleep in my hiding spot. Took a really long nap, I guess." Tarzan yawned for good measure.

Kerchak leaned down and sniffed Tarzan, before sneezing rather violently.

"You reek," Kerchak said. "Where exactly were you hiding?"

"Umm . . ."

"You sought out those creatures, didn't you?"

Tarzan winced with guilty eyes while Kaphi gave her brother sad eyes.

"I figured as much. After I warned you to stay away from them repeatedly. They killed one of our own, Tarzan!"

"I had to know, Dad." Tarzan argued back. "What I am, where I'm from." He dropped his head sadly, refusing to look at his father or sister. "But I didn't like it. I'm sorry. I won't do it again."

Kerchak's own features softened at that, though deep inside he was glad Tarzan found no liking of these creatures. If he was to be honest with himself, he had been afraid that if Tarzan ran into them, he would want to stay with them. But now that the opposite was true, he was simply glad Tarzan was unharmed.

"They do not define who you are, Tarzan," Kerchak said as he gave his son. "Do not be so disheartened. You'll always have a home here."

Tarzan smiled at his father's words.

"For right now," Kerchak added, "let's keep this adventure between us three. We'll tell your mother when the other families have moved on, but we do not want to cause any more panic among the families. Agreed?"

"Yes, Dad," Tarzan and Kaphi said.

"You really do smell, big brother," Kaphi said, gagging at the stench.

"We should probably take care of that before we rejoin the family." Kerchak looked around before smirking.

Tarzan screamed playfully as he was carefully tossed into the river. He let himself sink some before kicking back up toward the surface, treading in the water. He smiled back at his father and Kaphi. His sister was laughing while Kerchak seemed smug.

"That should take care of the smell," Kerchak said. He motioned with his head for Tarzan to swim back and Tarzan did so, shaking himself off and splashing his father and sister. Kerchak sniffed him once more and nodded in satisfaction.

"Much better," Kerchak said, giving his son a playful nudge. "Let's have some food now, then it's an early bedtime for both of you."

"Aww," Tarzan and Kaphi complained.

"Don't give me that, you both know you deserve it."

Kaphi and Tarzan shared a look, then gave each other challenging eyes before chasing each other back toward the family, laughing while Kerchak followed at a slower pace. So maybe they did earn themselves an early bedtime, but they were going to make the most of the time they had before then.

The song Shen sings is a parody of "The Hamburg Tickler" from Animaniacs Season 2, episode "The Hamburg Tickler."

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