Iron on the Outside, Father Within @bluerowley
Social Grooming

Here's the next chapter! Sorry it's a bit late. Thank you to all the new favorites, followers, and reviews!

Kerchak woke early the next morning, the storms from the night long over. Despite it, Tarzan was still snuggled up against his side, his head and hands buried deep in his fur for warmth. Kerchak froze, staring down at the small body against him. For a split second, Kerchak thought of his lost son, and how the infant would curl up against him on cold, rainy nights as Tarzan was now. After such scary nights, he would wake his child with some tickling, earning loud squeals and laughter.

He would not use that same method on Tarzan.

However, the longer Kerchak remained in that position—his arm wrapped around the boy—he couldn't help but ponder the "what ifs?" Tarzan was still so small, like an infant gorilla. And the way the boy had learned to cling was so ape-like it brought reveries to Kerchak's mind. With the image of his son in mind, Kerchak tightened his arm around Tarzan and pulled the boy closer, closing his eyes and breathing in the child's scent.

No, it wasn't the same. Though Kerchak hadn't expected it to be. He had to accept that his child was gone. Sabor had gotten to his baby before he could. It wasn't fair. Sabor had, according to Kala, killed off Tarzan's parents, and Kerchak wished it had been the other way around. He'd gladly allow Sabor to take his own life over that of any child of his.

Tarzan yawned and stirred at his side, nuzzling deeper into Kerchak. The great silverback snorted. He'd have to wake the boy soon. They were wasting daylight. Kerchak slowly removed his arm from around Tarzan and stood up in his nest, scanning the forest for any damage. Rain was a common occurrence in the forest, but these storms were causing awful flooding and a lot of damage. He hoped the weather would settle down. They were nearing home; a few more days, and they would arrive back in their territory. The other gorillas should still be at higher ground to avoid the floods, so Kerchak was sure he would find them quickly.

Kerchak looked back down at Tarzan and gave him a gentle shake. The boy rolled on his back, yawned, then blinked his eyes open.

"Morning, Kerchak," Tarzan greeted, stretching as he sat up.

Kerchak almost muttered a "good morning" himself, but the words caught in his throat and he swallowed them down. He nodded at Tarzan and began descending from the tree. Tarzan followed carefully. Kerchak collected fruit for their breakfast, and they ate their fill in silence, as most of their meals were done in.

When they both were full, Kerchak began walking deeper into the trees, his thoughts distracted between wanting to reunite with his family and the strange feelings he had felt toward Tarzan last night. He couldn't quite wrap his head around it. He had never felt anything but indifference toward Tarzan—what made him feel something . . . new? Perhaps it was from spending so much alone time with the child. It had been four days after all since they had been separated from the rest of the family. And gorillas were very social animals that created strong bonds with members of their family. And Tarzan was a member whether he liked it or not.

Kerchak had to admit that it was nice to have someone with him, otherwise his trip back would have been very lonely. Too bad it couldn't have been Terk or Kala herself.

Tarzan was slowly lagging behind Kerchak, scratching at his head viciously. Kerchak paused and glanced back at the boy, narrowing his eyes.

"What have I told you about staying at my side?" Kerchak snapped.

"Sorry," Tarzan said, shuffling up to the large ape. He sat at Kerchak's side to scratch at his head again. "My head really itches right now."

"Quit scratching then and groom yourself," Kerchak said. He immediately recognized Tarzan's problem, his own fur needing a grooming as well.

Tarzan frowned at Kerchak and kept scratching at his head. Kerchak sighed. He supposed it was hard to pick through ones' own hair. Even he was grateful when his subordinates came to his aid to groom him. It had been a while since he had taken the time to dig through his hair for bugs and dirt, and Tarzan was definitely in need of a quick bath.

After a minute of watching Tarzan dig at his hair with his nails, Kerchak huffed and sat in front of the boy. He picked up the child and situated him in between his legs, already pulling out a couple of twigs. The boy's hands kept scratching.

"Stop scratching," Kerchak said, snatching the boy's wrists and lowering them to Tarzan's sides. "Scratching does not solve the problem."

"But it hurts not to!" Tarzan complained, squirming as he tried to reach for his head. When Kerchak stopped him once more, Tarzan tried to jump away from Kerchak, but the large ape captured him and pinned Tarzan down with his feet.

"Hold still," Kerchak growled, annoyed that his efforts were hardly being appreciated.

Tarzan really wanted to keep itching, but he bit his lip instead and waited. Kerchak picked through Tarzan's strange hair that seemed to only grow on top of his head. He had to untangle some strands as he searched for the pesky lice biting down on the boy. Naturally, he ate what he found. The action of grooming alone was a calming activity, but the silence between the two was growing awkward, neither knowing what to say. Kerchak cleared his throat.

"You need to start becoming more active in your own self grooming," Kerchak said. "At least what you can reach."

"I try," Tarzan said, scratching at his knee to distract himself from the itch on his head. "But the bugs just come back. Even if I flick them away."

"You need to eat them to get rid of them or they will keep coming back," Kerchak said, plucking a louse off the boy. "I know you are picky with your live food, but you don't have to like it. It just needs to be done. And you will start acclimating yourself now."

Kerchak lowered his arm and offered the louse to Tarzan, not missing the boy's grimace. Tarzan gulped and accepted the small bug, sticking his tongue out. He glanced up at Kerchak, then back at the bug. Closing his eyes, he slowly put the bug in his mouth and crunched on it. Swallowing quickly, Tarzan covered his mouth with a hand to keep his breakfast down. Kerchak was impressed Tarzan ate the bug without much protest. He had seen Kala try to introduce Tarzan to termites, and the boy had flat out refused for her. At the time, Tarzan's tantrum had only proved that the boy did not belong in the colony, but now, he was starting to think that Tarzan just needed a more authoritative figure.

"You'll get used to it," Kerchak said, resuming his grooming. "You could just swallow it whole if the taste repulses you so much. But grooming yourself and helping the others is important among the family. Otherwise, we'd all be itching."

"Only Mom grooms me," Tarzan said softly.

Kerchak blinked. "What about Terkina?"

"Sometimes she'll start to, but she gets distracted and would rather wrestle. No one else will touch me."

"Hmm." Kerchak's eyes softened as he combed through Tarzan's hair. "You can always come to me."

Tarzan's head snapped up, forcing Kerchak to pause as the child's blue-green eyes looked up at him. "I can?" he asked.

"Yes," Kerchak answered, tilting Tarzan's head back down to finish a final check. Kerchak knew that the other gorillas would follow his lead if he were to groom the boy in front of them. He wasn't sure why Tarzan's words affected him, but he didn't like how sad Tarzan had sounded. Kerchak finished with Tarzan's hair and ran his hands over the child's body, looking for any other bugs or ticks that weren't hiding in the hair.

"Why am I so different?" Tarzan asked, shuddering slightly as Kerchak grazed his teeth against the skin under the boy's arm to remove a tick. Tarzan was used to Kala using her teeth to remove the skin-imbedding bugs, but Kala was half Kerchak's size, and she didn't have such massive canines.

Kerchak wasn't sure how to answer, so he said nothing as he used his teeth to remove another tick on Tarzan's back. It was hard for a gorilla's chubby fingers to pluck off the entire tick without crushing it or pushing it deeper into the skin. He was very careful to use the tip of his incisors and to lightly graze the boy's hairless skin to avoid injury. He listened as Tarzan spoke again.

"Mom already told me that we are exactly the same on the inside. And I have two hands like her. And two ears. Two eyes. A nose. But I don't really look like you or Mom that much. You have more hair than me, and the others my age are all bigger and stronger than me."

Kerchak sighed, looking over the child one last time before releasing him. Tarzan shuffled away a bit and ran a hand through his hair, feeling better after the grooming. Kerchak searched what he could reach of himself, removing any lice he found. His own back itched, but he was sure Tarzan would not return the favor. Not yet, anyway.

Tarzan finished checking himself over and looked back up at Kerchak, as if waiting for an answer. What was he supposed to say? Kala already spoke to the boy about this, so why was he asking again. Did he need confirmation? A second opinion? Kerchak finished grooming himself, then looked down at Tarzan.

"You are . . . special, Tarzan," he said.

"Doesn't feel like I am," Tarzan muttered.

"You are not that different," Kerchak continued. "Like you said, you have two eyes, a nose . . ."

"No hair," Tarzan added.

Kerchak frowned. "You do have hair, it's all up here." Kerchak ruffled Tarzan's mop of hair. Tarzan offered a smile. "And there's that nose we were talking about."

Kerchak tapped Tarzan on the nose, earning a giggle.

"And two hands!" Tarzan said, holding out his hands.

"Yes, we both have two hands," Kerchak said without holding out his own hands. He tilted his head at Tarzan when the boy's face fell, and he lowered his hands. He was unsure what the boy may have wanted him to do. Thinking hastily, he pulled Tarzan toward him by his legs, holding up his feet slightly. "And don't forget two feet."

"Oh yeah," Tarzan smiled as he righted himself.

"See? We're not that much different." Kerchak released the boy with a small smile.

"Mom said what makes us exactly the same is on the inside."

"You mean like your heart? Are you sure you have one?"

"Yes, I'm sure."

"I'll be the judge of that," Kerchak said, picking the boy up and listening to his stomach first. "I don't hear one."

"It's not there!" Tarzan laughed.

Kerchak turned Tarzan over and listened to his back. Huffing, he held Tarzan up by one arm. "Still don't hear it. You're lying to me."

"No, I'm not, Kerchak! It's in my chest. I swear!"

Cradling the boy now, Kerchak lifted him up to his ear, laying his large head against the boy's torso, hearing the heartbeat against the vibrating, laughing chest. "Hard to tell if you really have a heart with all this laughing."

That only made Tarzan laugh harder. Kerchak felt himself smile down at Tarzan before he suddenly realized what he was doing. He blinked before setting Tarzan down gently, standing up and walking toward the trees.

"We're wasting time," he said. "While there's still sun, we need to keep moving."

"Coming," Tarzan said, shuffling at the ape's side happily.

Kerchak sighed, holding himself up as he usually did, face neutral. He did not miss Tarzan copy his stance. Kerchak was conflicted, he didn't quite know what to make of his feelings for Tarzan. He had practically played with the boy, as if he was one of their own kind. He shook his head. He was spending too much time with this child. He needed to get back with the colony.

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