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Welcome to the Jungle

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After weeks of travelling, he could finally see it on the horizon. That big shiny dome, the symbol of all his hopes and dreams for a new life. He paused a moment just to take it all in, to savor this experience so that he could remember every single detail to one day tell his grandchildren in the distant future.

The dome was actually a big city named Paradiso. It was one of the last few beacons of hope scattered about this empty wasteland of a world. The land out here was harsh, unable to grow much in the way of food. The weather too was wild, violent, and prone to frequent bouts of fury. The people out here could barely scrounge together enough to survive, let alone to actually truly live.

But the lucky ones in the domed cities had a better life. Or so he had been told. The people there didn’t have to worry sudden dust storms, sudden hail storms, or sudden acid rain storms. They didn’t have to worry about roving bandits who wouldn’t think twice about spilling someone’s guts just to take their shoes. They didn’t have to worry about the sense of devastating loneliness that pervaded the air out here.

He was ready to be away from it all. He took out his emigration papers to look over them once again. His name, Yabu Kota, was still there, still etched in ink that had long since dried. He allowed himself only a moment to look at the papers, to reassure himself that they were still real, before he stowed them away in the pocket he’d sewn inside his shirt. Those papers were worth more than his weight in gold, and any ruthless character he might come across would kill him in an instant for them.

Yabu continued down the dusty road towards the dome, happily kicking some tiny rocks in his path like a young child might do. As he got closer, he could see more details of the gigantic structure. The whole thing was a shade of pale gray that almost looked a translucent white if the sun hit it at just the right angle. There were parts of it that opened up, shedding sunlight onto the city inside while providing an escape route for factory smoke as well. He’d heard a great deal over the years from passing travelers about the protection the dome provided to the city. When the weather went out of control, the dome was closed up and reinforced to keep the elements from damaging the city. And when it rained, grooves carved into the metal dome channeled the water down into collection bins where it was processed and stored for later use.

All in all, the whole thing was ideal. Yabu was ready to get to Paradiso. He’d been working his whole life until he finally managed to get his papers that would let him into the city and into a better life. He’d earned this.

The entrance to the city was a dark gray gate built into the wall, and guards were spread out all around it. Yabu walked slowly up the steep ramp that led to the gate. He held his papers out in one hand while also raising the other up, open-palmed to show that he wasn’t a threat. Each of the guards had their guns trained on his head and his heart.

The guard closest to Yabu stepped forward and reached for the papers without lowering his weapon even a centimeter. He was dressed in bulky black security gear and Yabu could see solid arm muscles underneath his sleeves, but there was something slightly less intimidating about this one than the others. Something softer around the eyes maybe. Or perhaps it was simply because Yabu could tell the guard was just a little younger than he was.

“We’ll have to examine these before the immigration process begins,” the guard said, gesturing to the papers. He finally lowered his weapon. “Come with me to wait.”

Yabu followed the guard inside. For a brief few seconds, he could see the city in all its beautiful glory. The sturdy buildings, the green trees, the glittering happiness of it all. But then the guard was ushering him into a small gray room without windows, and from that moment it was all gone like a fleeting dream he’d only grasped at as he woke up.

“So… uh…” Yabu thought maybe he should break the awkward silence that was pressing against the walls of the tiny room, looking to escape. “My name’s Yabu. What’s yours?”

“I’m not supposed to speak to the immigrants,” the guard answered.

“But you just spoke to me,” Yabu grinned and his eyes disappeared, melding into his high cheek bones. Everyone back home had always teased him about his trademark smile.

A brief look of embarrassment flashed across the young guard’s face. He glanced around the room as he tried to think of an excuse for contradicting himself, but finally he just decided not to speak.

Yabu tried a different tactic. “There’s a bug crawling on you,” he said in a calm, almost bored tone.

The guard let out a startled “where?” and patted his gear for the tiny insect. But the sound of Yabu’s laughter clued him into what had just happened. Yabu watched the corners of his mouth pull down into an un-amused frown.

“There’s no bug,” Yabu admitted with his best happy face. “But you talked to me again. You even asked a question this time!”

The guard narrowed his eyes for a moment before sighing in defeat. “Okamoto,” he said, finally introducing himself. “Okamoto Keito.”

“Nice to meet you!” Yabu said. He stuck out his hand for a handshake but Keito was apparently still too reluctant for actual human contact. Yabu let his hand drop to his side. “Have you always lived in Paradiso or were you once an immigrant too?”

“Always,” Keito answered. He stared intently at the wall instead of Yabu as if he could justify breaking the rules if he didn’t make eye contact.

“So what are the things to do for fun around here?” Yabu continued his interrogation. “Could you be my tour guide?”

Keito’s eyes darted over to Yabu in a look of confusion for a split second before reverting back to the solid gray walls. “You really don’t understand how it works here,” he muttered. Yabu thought there might even be a hint of concern in the young guard’s voice, but he wasn’t too sure so he ignored it.

“You’re the first person I’ve met in the city,” Yabu explained. “We could be friends.”

Now Keito’s face was clearly one of pity. Suddenly he straightened up and turned to face the narrow doorway. “I’m not supposed to speak to the immigrants,” he repeated.

Before Yabu could continue, the door swung open to reveal an older, stern-looking man. He was holding Yabu’s immigration papers. “You’ve been approved,” he announced without any sort of emotion. “Processing will only take a moment.”

The man pulled out a small device resembling a staple gun. He reached out and grabbed Yabu firmly by the arm. Before Yabu had any time to protest, there was a sharp pain in the back of his neck.

“What was that?”

“Standard procedure.” Just like Keito, the man wasn’t very good at explaining things. “All immigrants are required to have trackers.”

“…okay,” Yabu said. He didn’t really understand why that would be necessary but he couldn’t really question it now. The metal device was already embedded under his skin. He rubbed the back of his neck and frowned at the small pinprick of blood he discovered on his fingers.

The man gestured for Yabu to follow him from the room down a long narrow hallway. Yabu looked to see if Keito was going to accompany them, but he only gave Yabu one brief backward glance of pity before taking off in the opposite direction. A gruff command from the man prompted Yabu to start walking again. He wasn’t claustrophobic but it did seem almost as if the walls were closing in on him.

After a right turn and a descent down some stairs, the man led him to another doorway that opened up into the city. Only the city looked different this time. It had less color and more dirty grime. And it wasn’t sunlight streaming in from the sky, but large industrial-sized lights bolted to a wide expansive ceiling above all the buildings. This wasn’t the city he’d glimpsed earlier. He was underneath it.

“Welcome to Paradiso,” the man said. And with a loud clang of metal on metal, the doorway shut again, leaving Yabu alone in this strange new place.

***

The first thing Yabu noticed was the ever-present smell of dirty air. It was like an unpleasant mix of exhaust and smoke. He guessed that there was some kind of filter that recycled the air so that the people living down here didn’t suffocate. He stood in the same spot for a long while just trying to process everything. He had journeyed so far just for this?

Some time after the shock had worn off, Yabu decided to find his new workplace. His immigration papers had a job already assigned to him. It was the only guarantee he had in this new life. He hoped it was a good one.

It was surprisingly difficult to navigate his way around the city. The roads and buildings twisted together like a nonsensical maze. There was no grid to follow, no pattern to pick out. But he supposed that he’d adjust to it all after a while. Anything would be better than the tiny house he used to live in where the roof could collapse at any time. He certainly would not miss having to scrounge for food either.

He had to stop several times to ask for directions. Most people just brushed him off while others would point him the wrong way, but there were a few helpful ones who showed him where to go. It was a factory of some sort he discovered when he finally reached the building. His new boss was a stern-looking old man and he didn’t look happy to have a new employee.

“You start work tomorrow,” the man told him after he had given Yabu a few sparse details of his new job. He didn’t even look up from the paperwork on his desk afterwards. “You can leave now.”

“I’m sorry sir, but I just arrived here today and I don’t really know where to go,” Yabu had at least hoped he could tell him where to look for a place to sleep.

But the man had no sympathy for him. He just shooed Yabu out of the office, leaving Yabu feeling just as lost as before. He stood there feeling hopeless and lost again, feeling like he couldn’t move, until finally someone seemed to take pity on him.

“Do you need some help?” a voice asked him from behind. Yabu turned to see a short guy, probably around the same age as Keito the guard. He had light brown colored hair and a partially healed cut above his right eyebrow. And the look in his eyes was the same pity he had seen before.

“I just got here today and I have no idea what I’m doing or where I’m going to stay or even where I’m going to eat. I don’t even have much money to buy anything yet.” Most of Yabu’s money had been used up by his travels the past few weeks.

The guy looked like he wished he could help him out more. “I don’t know about finding a place to stay, but there’s a restaurant up the road,” he pointed in the direction, “where there’s good food for cheap. The old lady who runs it is friendly.” He explained in clear details how to get there.

“Thanks,” Yabu smiled. At least there were a few friendly people in this new place. “I’m Yabu Kota, by the way. I guess we’ll be working together starting tomorrow.”

“Yamada,” the guy said. He didn’t smile but he still seemed like a nice guy. “I’ll see you tomorrow. My break’s over now.” Yabu watched Yamada as he walked back inside the factory. He walked with a bit of a limp, and Yabu wondered if he was okay.

A hunger pain shot through his stomach, reminding Yabu that he needed to be moving again. The lady’s restaurant wasn’t very far at all and the soup he ordered tasted amazing. He quickly devoured every bite and couldn’t stop himself from ordering a second portion. It had been too long since he’d had anything resembling a decent meal. But when it came time to pay, Yabu realized that he’d made a mistake. He didn’t have enough money to pay the whole bill.

Yabu was about to offer to wash dishes when someone came up to the counter from behind and placed enough money down to cover the meal. The old lady smiled and went back to cooking in the kitchen, leaving Yabu alone with the new stranger.

“You didn’t have to do that, but thanks,” Yabu said.

“I can tell that you’re new here,” the stranger explained with a half-smile. “No one eats second helpings of the soup unless they’re starving to death.”

The stranger was easily the nicest person he’d met in the city so far. But Yabu was startled to see a bruise on the left side of his chin and also bruises on his knuckles as though he’d recently been in a fight.

“I just got to the city today,” Yabu answered and then introduced himself. The stranger gestured for Yabu to join him as he left the restaurant, so he followed him out to the street and back to the maze that made up the underground. He soon learned by chatting with the stranger that his name was Takaki Yuya, they were both about the same age, and he’d come to the city with his family ten years ago.

“Where’s your family now?” Yabu asked.

Takaki had a distant look on his face and didn’t look at Yabu when he answered. “They all died,” he said solemnly. “A few years back there was a plague that swept through the city, and lots of people died. I was the only one of my family that didn’t get sick.”

“I’m sorry.” Yabu wished he hadn’t asked.

But Takaki shook his head. “There’s nothing to be done about it now,” he said. “Just gotta keep on living.” He abruptly stopped walking as though he’d just realized where he was. The two of them were standing in front of what looked to be an apartment complex that had seen better days. But then again, Yabu had noticed that all of the buildings down here looked rundown like that.

“Do you have a place to stay?” Takaki asked.

Yabu shook his head.

Takaki remained silent for a few minutes. He looked like he was thinking very hard about something. “This is where I live,” he finally said. “And I have an extra cot if you wanna crash until you can find your own place?”

“Thank you,” Yabu said.

“Sorry that the place is a mess,” Takaki apologized as he led Yabu up the stairway to the third floor. “I haven’t had a roommate in almost two years.”

“What happened to your roommate?”

Takaki hesitated for a very brief moment. “He died too.”

“The plague?” Yabu was almost starting to second guess his decision to follow this stranger. Death seemed to haunt him.

“No, it was a street fight,” Takaki explained. They’d walked to the very end of the dimly-lit hallway to the door labeled 315. Takaki searched his pockets a moment before he pulled out his keys. “It was a nasty fight. My roommate was a great fighter but for some reason he froze up during that fight. The other guy broke his ribs and a few of them punctured his lungs. There wasn’t anything we could do about the internal bleeding.” There was a click from the lock and Takaki pushed the door open. “He just died lying there in the street.”

“That’s awful,” Yabu said. He’d seen some terrible things himself living out in the wastelands, but he’d never imagined things could be like that inside Paradiso too.

Takaki shrugged. “Well, that’s just the way it is here in The Jungle.”

And for the first time, Yabu wondered if he was caught in some nightmare that he couldn’t wake up from.

***

The Jungle, Yabu soon learned, was what the immigrants called the underground part of the city where they lived. No one was quite sure how the nickname had gotten started but it had stuck. And Yabu thought it was pretty appropriate. Even after a week of living here, he still got lost walking to work. He’d never seen a real jungle—those were a thing of the distant past—but he’d once read about them in a book. If he closed his eyes he could imagine the vast expanse of trees, hanging full of thick vines and leafy branches, so much so that he would have had to carefully duck around and weave under them in order to move. And there would be so much green above his head that the sunlight wouldn’t be able to shine through.

He told this thought to Yamada as it occurred to him while they were working. Their job was to shovel coal into a furnace that powered the machinery.

Yamada laughed bitterly as he wiped the sweat off his forehead. “I guess you’re right about jungles not getting any sunlight. All we get down here are those lights that go off at nighttime. Fake sun, you know.”

“But if we work hard enough,” Yabu countered, “we’ll be able to move up above ground one day, right?” He pressed his shovel deep into the coal pit and lifted up another load, the muscles in his arms and back straining against the heavy lifting. “That’s what they say.”

“That’s a load of bullshit,” Yamada said. He leaned against his shovel and watched Yabu with skepticism. “They’ll never let us out of here. I haven’t seen the sun in seven years.”

Yamada Ryosuke, Yabu had quickly learned, could be a bit of a downer sometimes. While Yabu looked for positives in any situation, Yamada was always shooting his ideas down. He didn’t mind Yamada’s cynicism much though. It was nice to see things from another perspective too. But Yabu tried not to let such ideas bring him down too much. If he didn’t hold onto his positivity, he thought he might go crazy down here.

“One day we’ll get out,” Yabu promised. “I’m sure we will.”

Yamada said nothing as he focused on tossing more coal into the fire. The heat was pressing against their skin, making Yabu feel as though he were slowly melting.

“Look on the bright side,” Yabu added. “We never have to worry about the weather down here.”

Again, Yamada laughed. “Who needs the sun, I suppose, when you’re just a literal ray of sunshine yourself.”

Yabu took that as a compliment and grinned. But the smile soon faded from his face when he noticed that Yamada had stopped shoveling for a moment to grab his right shoulder. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, no worries,” Yamada answered. He massaged the shoulder gently before reaching out for his shovel again. Yabu threw his hand out to stop him.

“Take a break,” he commanded. “I can shovel a few extra scoops for you.”

There wasn’t a supervisor around to complain so Yamada let Yabu do the work alone for a few minutes. He grimaced a bit as he slowly rotated his arm to examine the damage done to the joint.

“Was it a fight?” Yabu asked. One of the important things he’d learned in the past week was that street fighting was as common as breathing in The Jungle. Most of their jobs didn’t provide enough money, so a complicated system that involved making money from street fighting had been developed over the years. There were two ways to cash in: place bets on the fighters or be a fighter yourself. Most people did both.

Yamada gave him a rare proud smile. “I won the fight.”

“At the cost of your good arm,” Yabu pointed out.

“It’ll heal,” Yamada said. “You won’t really understand until you have your first fight.”

“Well you don’t have to bug me about it anymore,” Yabu said as Yamada gingerly picked his shovel back up. “My roommate’s gonna take me to my first one tonight.”

“Good luck then, Sunshine,” Yamada threw more coal onto the fire. “You’ll need it.”

When Yabu left work that evening, he could still feel the heat of the furnace on his face. With every step forward he took, he could almost imagine that his skin was melting off, leaving itself behind on the sidewalk in little clumps. But he turned to look over his shoulder and nothing was there, of course. He was just tired.

Takaki wasn’t back yet when Yabu reached the apartment, so he took the opportunity to take a shower. He turned the water cold and stepped under the showerhead. The chill of the water took his breath away at first. He closed his eyes and tensed up for a moment before his body got used to the temperature. He let the water wash over him, taking away the sweat and soot of the day. He stood there for a long time until his body finally started shivering from the cold again and he couldn’t make it stop.

He felt better once he was fully clothed and sitting on his cot in the small living room of the apartment. Actually, apartment felt like too strong of a word to use. The place only consisted of the bathroom, a tiny kitchen, and this living room with two cots shoved in it for sleeping. Takaki didn’t have much in the way of decorations, so it hardly looked like anyone even lived there. The only thing Takaki had was a small fern sitting in a pot in the corner of the room. Takaki had set up a lamp over it to replace the missing sunshine. Yabu had asked Takaki once where he’d gotten the plant since there wasn’t much in the underground except for concrete, but Takaki’s answer had been something vague about making some deals on the black market. So Yabu hadn’t pushed the issue. All he knew was that the fern was one of Takaki’s most important possessions. Takaki would even talk quietly to it from time to time as he watered it.

While he was still waiting for Takaki, Yabu noticed that there weren’t any sounds coming from the neighbors in 313 so far so he guessed they weren’t home at the moment. Yabu hadn’t met them yet, but he could occasionally hear things through the wall. One of them had a persistent hacking cough. Yabu had only been here a week but he was kind of concerned for the neighbor he hadn’t met. He hoped it wasn’t anything serious.

Of course, he could hear other things through the wall too. The neighbors often had loud sex at weird hours of the night. When he’d heard it on the first night he was there, he had asked Takaki about it.

“They’re not dating,” Takaki had said, “but they definitely sleep together all the time. Just put a pillow over your head.” And with that bit of advice, Takaki had rolled over on his cot and went back to sleep.

Yabu hadn’t been there long enough to develop the ability to sleep through it yet, so instead he would have to lie in his cot awake and just wait for them to finish. He imagined that maybe Takaki was wrong about them not dating. He imagined that they were both happy together in a committed relationship. He desperately hoped that there were people down here who had some sort of happiness in their lives.

Before he could continue down this dangerous line of thinking, Takaki came through the door.

“Are you ready?” Takaki asked after he’d changed into different clothes. He was in the middle of wrapping up his knuckles to hide the bruises that had almost healed.

“No,” Yabu answered. He tried to laugh to lighten the mood but, honestly, he was pretty terrified about the whole thing. He didn’t want to go fight someone. He didn’t even want to watch Takaki fight someone. The whole thing seemed stupid.

“I have a bottle of whiskey I keep for special occasions,” Takaki said. “Do you need some?”

Yabu vigorously shook his head. The last thing he needed was to go into this situation without a clear mind.

The anxiety didn’t fade as Takaki led him through the maze of streets. In fact, the feeling intensified as soon as they got to the large crowd of people. Some fights were already in progress and there were shouts all around as people cheered on the fighters. Takaki pushed through the crowd of people to get to the front. That was where they were able to sign up for fights and place bets on the matches. Yabu tried to act as confident as Takaki, but he still stumbled a bit over his words as he gambled his money away on Takaki’s upcoming fight. When everything was finalized, they both turned to watch the match already in progress. The two people threw punches and kicks at each other. It looked nasty and Yabu winced in sympathy as each blow landed. Finally, one guy went down and stayed down. The winner was declared and the loser was taken away by his friends.

“My turn,” Takaki said. “See you soon.”

Yabu watched his roommate walk into the open space. Another guy stepped in as the challenger. He was a big guy with broad shoulders that looked like he’d spent all his free time lifting weights. Takaki wasn’t lacking in muscle himself, but he definitely looked like the underdog in this fight.

The crowd shouted cheers and jeers as the fight began. The opponent quickly went on the offensive and Takaki spent the first few minutes dodging what looked to be a powerful right hook. But after a fake to the left, Takaki managed to get the first punch in, and from there, things got more violent. Yabu soon learned that Takaki’s fighting style was cautious but swift. He took the time to think about his punches and plan out where they were going to land, so that he could put a lot of force into it. And that strategy paid off because his opponent couldn’t keep up. All too soon, it was over. Takaki’s last punch knocked the guy down and he didn’t fight back anymore.

Yabu cheered when Takaki was declared the winner but he still hoped that the guy was okay. He felt a little bit of relief when Takaki reached his hand out and helped the guy up.

“Your turn now,” Takaki said as he stepped back on the sidelines. “Just remember what I told you. Keep your arms up and protect your vitals. You’re gonna be fine.”

He pushed Yabu out to the fighting area. Suddenly, Yabu felt nauseous with nervousness. But he figured that puking on the pavement might not be a good first impression on the crowd. Sure, he had fought people before—there had been bandits looking to rob him many times when he was travelling—but he’d always had something to defend himself with and he would only fight long enough until he could run away. Yabu thought maybe he wouldn’t be so worried about this if Takaki hadn’t told him the story of how his former roommate died. He just kept imagining what it would sound like if his ribs got cracked into pieces.

His opponent stepped out from the crowd. He had hair dyed blond but his dark roots still shone through underneath. And he was tall. It wasn’t often that Yabu met people taller than he was. But what worried Yabu the most was that his opponent was completely wasted. He stepped forward, tossed his empty bottle of alcohol away, and gave Yabu an intimidating smirk.

Yabu put his arms up in a defensive pose with his fists clenched as tightly as possible. He watched the other fighter as he swayed side to side with drunken fluidity. The crowd was cheering for the other guy, shouting his name. Yuto, Yuto, Yuto.

Without any warning, his opponent—Yuto, apparently—lunged forward. A fist came flying at his face with impossible speed and Yabu couldn’t dodge in time. It connected with the side of his face and he stumbled backwards a few paces. Before he could regain his composure and balance, Yuto threw another punch. Yabu leaned sharply to the right but it wasn’t enough. He felt a sharp pain in his shoulder as the punch landed. Trying to ignore the cheering of the crowd, Yabu reared back with all his strength and managed to land a punch right in the middle of Yuto’s stomach. His victory was short-lived because it didn’t seem to faze Yuto at all. He just laughed and lunged forward again. If Yabu hadn’t been so focused on trying to dodge all the punches, he would have admired the way Yuto moved with such fluid grace.

Once again, Yabu got lucky and got another punch in. He could hear Takaki give a loud cheer from somewhere to his left. Feeling a bit more confident, Yabu put everything he had into one more punch. But Yuto surprised him by dropping low to the ground and swinging his leg around to knock Yabu over. Yabu landed hard on the pavement and the impact jolted his spine. He felt a weird pain in the arm that broke his fall. For a moment, he couldn’t breathe from the shock. Then all he could feel was a foot, Yuto’s foot, pressing into his back so that he couldn’t get up. The pressure slowly increased as the foot sank deeper into his back, cutting off his access to air.

When everyone realized that Yabu wasn’t going to be able to get back on his feet, Yuto was declared the winner. The pressure from his back was lifted suddenly and he saw Yuto laughing.

“Good fight, new guy,” he said and then staggered away.

The next thing Yabu knew, Takaki was picking him up off the pavement and pulling him away from the crowd. When they stopped moving again, Takaki grabbed his arm to look at the damage. Yabu looked too and for the first time noticed that there was blood running down his arm in snake-like rivulets. He must have cut himself on a rock on the pavement when he went down. Takaki examined the wound and then unwrapped one of his bandaged knuckles.

“This probably needs stitches,” Takaki said as he carefully wrapped the bandage around Yabu’s arm. “Put pressure on it so it won’t bleed so much.”

Yabu did as he was told. Now that he had realized he was injured, it was starting to hurt a lot more than before. Takaki made a brief stop to pick up the money they’d won on bets and then led him away from the crowd.

“You did good for your first time,” Takaki said. “Especially against Yuto.”

“You bet against me,” Yabu said in return. “I saw how much money you just collected.”

“Nobody ever wins their first fight. But you’ll win the next one. I know it.”

Yabu didn’t quite know how to respond to that, so he just muttered a quiet thank you and continued to follow Takaki.

“I’m going to get Inoo to patch you up,” he explained as they got back to the apartment.

“Who’s that?”

“He’s our neighbor.” Takaki stopped in front of number 313 and knocked.

Yabu suddenly grimaced. “I don’t want to match faces to the sex noises I hear every night,” he whispered quickly but Takaki ignored his protests.

The door swung open to reveal a guy with messy black hair and a pretty face. He grinned as soon as he realized who his visitor was.

“Takaki!” he exclaimed happily. Another voice inside the apartment echoed the name as well, but he sounded more annoyed.

“Are we interrupting something?” Takaki asked.

“If you’d waited about five more minutes, you would have,” he answered with a smirk while he tried to smooth out a few stray strands of hair. His eyes brightened up as soon as he noticed Yabu standing there as well. “But Dai-chan and I can save it for later. Is this the new roomie? The one you have told me absolutely nothing about? Please come in.” He gestured inside, eager to meet the new face.

“He needs some stitches, doc,” Takaki said, ignoring the questions.

Introductions were made all around as they were ushered into the tiny apartment. It didn’t look all that different from Takaki’s place: bare walls and overcrowded space. Yabu soon learned that the black-haired guy was Inoo Kei and his roommate, a short guy probably around Yamada’s height, was Arioka Daiki.

Inoo wasn’t officially a doctor, but he’d picked up enough over the years to get good at patching people up. He led Yabu over to the tiny kitchen sink, removed the dirty dishes, and then told him to sit up on the counter while holding his arm out. Inoo frowned when he saw that Yabu was bleeding through the bandages but quickly covered up the expression by beginning to hum an upbeat tune. Yabu watched his blood drip slowly into the sink.

“So it was your first fight, huh?” Daiki asked. The question was punctuated by a harsh-sounding cough. Yabu had heard that sound many times through the wall in the past week. But Daiki didn’t look like the sickly person he had imagined.

“And he got lucky enough to fight Nakajima Yuto,” Takaki explained with an amused chuckle. He was leaning up against the counter with his arms crossed. “How about that for a first time?”

“Oh,” Daiki gasped with a mixture of awe and sympathy. “I bet that was exciting!” He noticed Yabu’s frown and smiled to cheer him up. “Don’t feel so bad. He kicked my ass a few weeks ago too. Not many people can beat him. He’s a master at drunken fighting.”

“But he’s really the nicest guy once you get to know him,” Inoo said cheerfully as he poured some alcohol over Yabu’s arm to cleanse the cut. Yabu had to bite his tongue to keep from yelling out with pain. “Sober, that is. And he’s actually a pretty big klutz too. Pretty funny how that works out,” he added. From his first aid kit, he pulled out a needle and thread to stitch the wound closed and Yabu decided that he shouldn’t watch Inoo work anymore. He turned his head back towards Takaki and Daiki.

“Yeah, Yuto’s the kind of guy who’ll help old ladies cross the street,” Takaki explained.

“I’ve actually seen him do that before,” Daiki added with a nod. The motion made him cough again.

“Are you okay?” Yabu asked.

Daiki waved his hand dismissively. “It’s nothing to worry about.”

“An unfortunate side effect of his job,” Inoo answered with all the seriousness of an actual doctor. The sudden change in demeanor confused him. Yabu winced as he felt Inoo tug tightly at the stitches. “The part of the factory he works at,” Inoo explained, “has a lot of polluted air as a byproduct of the system. And they don’t get to wear dust masks or anything.”

Daiki looked annoyed by Inoo’s comments. He narrowed his eyes and raised his shoulders up a bit in a defensive gesture. “But it’s a very important job with much better pay than you get.”

Yabu wanted to ask about more of the job’s details but felt as though he’d accidentally stumbled into a private argument about finances. Takaki noticed this too and changed the subject.

“Inoo, you should check Yabu for any additional injuries. Yuto got in some good punches and Yabu hasn’t really learned how to protect his vitals yet.”

“Take off your shirt,” Inoo gleefully commanded without any hesitation. The distraction seemed to work because he was instantly in a better mood. He grinned in response to the confused look on Yabu’s face. “I’m checking for other injuries,” he explained. “Where else does it hurt?”

“Everywhere,” Yabu said. He reluctantly tugged his shirt up over his head. He could feel the strain of his sore muscles as he moved slowly. At least Inoo hadn’t demanded he take his pants off too.

Inoo stretched out his hands, sweeping over Yabu’s head first before moving down the rest of his body searching for any signs of odd swelling or broken bones. It was a weird feeling so Yabu focused instead on the feeling of Inoo’s long fingers. They looked like they would be perfect for playing music if maybe people even played musical instruments down here. Inoo probed gently at a few bruises on his side but didn’t look too concerned about them.

“Doesn’t look like there’s anything serious. You’ll just be bruised up and sore for a couple days. The doctor declares you fit for work,” Inoo declared with a smile and then patted Yabu on the top of his head like a child. Inoo was definitely a strange one but it was nice to see someone else in the underground who didn’t seem thoroughly depressed about being trapped in this life.

“Thanks.” Yabu carefully shimmied his way down from the counter and put his shirt back on.

Now that Yabu had been declared okay, Inoo declared that it was Takaki’s turn for a checkup. Yabu watched as Takaki whined in protest. It was a characteristic Yabu hadn’t yet seen from his new roommate, so he was rather amused by the pout on Takaki’s face as he lost the argument and was subjected to Inoo’s probing fingers as well. When he thought Inoo wasn’t looking, he kept pulling annoyed faces at Yabu and Daiki, and it was all Yabu could do to keep from laughing out loud at the display.

“I know what you’re doing,” Inoo said, giving Takaki a hard jab in his stomach. “I can see your face half the time, you know.”

“I’m fine,” Takaki insisted. He was trying his hardest to keep up his tough guy facade.

Daiki laughed while watching their interactions. “But it’s been a while since we’ve seen you,” he added. “Gotta make sure you’ve been okay without Kei’s delicate care.”

“Delicate my ass. This hurts more than the fight,” Takaki complained as Inoo grinned and pinched his arm for fun. He kept making save me faces at Yabu, but Yabu was more fascinated to see how this was all going to play out. It was the most entertainment he’d had all week.

“Don’t be so uptight. I’m a professional, and I’m very good with my hands,” Inoo declared. “Dai-chan can vouch for that.” He raised his eyebrows at that last comment. The suggestive if you know what I mean went unsaid.

“I think we’re all very well aware of that,” Takaki said in his best deadpan voice. Yabu almost burst out laughing.

Daiki went through another round of coughing before adding to the conversation again. “You’ll get used to all the craziness eventually,” he told Yabu with a chuckle when he regained his breath. “They’ve been friends for a long time.”

“How long have you all known each other?” Yabu asked since they were on the subject.

“Well Takaki’s been in the city ten years,” Inoo began. He was busy combing through Takaki’s hair, pretending to look for any hidden bruises on his scalp. It was obvious that he was only doing it to annoy Takaki now who looked like he wanted to escape through the window. In the short week Yabu had known him, the most important thing he’d discovered about Takaki was that he hated for people to mess with his hair.

“I’ve been here for eight years,” Inoo continued to explain. “And Dai-chan’s only been here for four. Takaki and I’ve been neighbors the whole time.”

“And I moved in about three years ago,” Daiki added.

“I stitched up your face and then you never left,” Inoo joked with a wide grin. Yabu was beginning to see that was a common expression for Inoo, who seemed to be a bit of an off-kilter jokester. He’d finally given up on annoying Takaki (who was just fine, just as he’d declared earlier) and waved him away so that he could make a pot of tea.

“I’d gotten beat up pretty bad in one of my fights. Broke all the fingers in my hand.” He lifted the hand up to show Yabu that, despite the seriousness of the injury, it had healed just fine. “And of course, I also got that nasty cut Kei had to stitch up.” He tapped the spot on the side of his head, now covered by his hair.

“Daiki was unlucky enough to get stuck in a fight with Hikaru,” Takaki explained. His eyes trailed over to Inoo who was still busy with the tea. “If you ever get Hikaru as your opponent in a fight, just forfeit,” he told Yabu.

“It’s probably safer that way,” Daiki said. “If you thought Yuto was bad, Hikaru is worse. It took me a month to get back on my feet after that fight. He’s a really mean guy and a ruthless fighter. And we’re all pretty sure he makes some shady deals about his fights but no one ever dares to stop him. Best to just avoid him if you can.”

“Hikaru, huh,” Yabu repeated. “I’ll remember that.” He’d had a childhood friend by the name of Hikaru, so he figured it would be easy to remember. At least easier than remembering the maze of streets he had to travel each day.

Inoo began pouring the tea into cups for everyone. “I didn’t really talk to Takaki when I first moved in,” he said, returning the conversation back to the previous topic. “He wasn’t the friendliest guy in the neighborhood.”

“You’ve got to warm up to people first, right?” Daiki said to Takaki who only shrugged in response. He looked like he didn’t know how to respond to being the subject of conversation.

“We really became friends when I helped him set his sister’s broken arm once,” Inoo said. There was a sort of faraway look in his eyes when he said this as though he was getting lost in his own memories. Yabu realized that he must have been friends with Takaki’s family before they had all passed away, and he’d probably mourned their loss almost as much as Takaki had.

“Truthfully, I thought Inoo was a weirdo,” Takaki said, interrupting the weird silence that had fallen over the room. “But I realized he was an okay guy when he helped my sister.”

“He’s still mostly a weirdo though,” Daiki added with a fond smile.

“You’re not drinking your tea, Daiki. It’s good for you,” Inoo interrupted suddenly, not using his usual nickname for his roommate. Yabu blinked and looked over at Daiki whose fond smile had disappeared from his face already. With a reluctant frown, he sipped at his tea. This seemed to satisfy Inoo so they didn’t mention it again. But neither of them looked particularly happy now. Yabu wondered if this was another argument of theirs.

But Inoo continued to have a thoughtful, serious look on his face even as Takaki and Daiki began a conversation explaining to Yabu about the people who had the best reputations for street fighting. The two of them got very excited reminiscing about things of the past and Yabu thought it was nice to see Takaki look so much happier and carefree than usual. Yabu asked lots of questions so that he could learn as much as possible. But Inoo didn’t say anything as the three of them talked until Takaki finally noticed his silence.

“What’s up with you? You’re hardly ever this quiet.”

“I was thinking,” Inoo answered. He swept up the now empty tea cups from everyone and dumped them unceremoniously into the sink.

“About?”

Inoo turned the water on but he didn’t move to wash any of the dishes. “About your sister,” he finally said. “Well, about your family I mean. And the plague.”

“Oh.”

“It still doesn’t make any sense,” Inoo said while tapping his hand on the counter in frustration. He glanced at Yabu and realized he needed to explain. “I could never figure out how the plague spread and how Takaki and I never got sick. With as much time as we spent taking care of them, we should have gotten sick too. There’s no way we couldn’t have been exposed to the germs.”

“We’ve discussed this before,” Takaki reminded him. “We must just have a natural immunity to the disease. We were lucky, that’s all.”

Inoo shook his head. “But how did the disease even spread? It was different all over the city. People were getting sick even without having contact with anyone else who had it.”

Takaki stood up from where he’d been sitting between Yabu and Daiki. “It doesn’t matter now,” he said. “It’s over. We survived. There’s nothing else we can do. Just give it a rest.” He gestured for Yabu to follow him towards the door. “We should probably get going.”

Inoo turned back around to the sink and didn’t say anything, just let the water continue to run over the dishes. Daiki leaned over to Yabu and said quietly, “Don’t worry. They have this argument once every couple of months.”

Yabu nodded. He awkwardly said his thanks and goodbyes to his new friends, promising to see them again later, before following Takaki out the door. They didn’t say much but Yabu did thank Takaki for helping him get treatment for his arm and introducing his friends. But by this point, Takaki had already retreated into his shell again after Yabu had gotten a glimpse of him outside of it at the neighbor’s place.

It was late so they both climbed into their cots to sleep. Takaki drifted off easily but Yabu still felt wide awake. He lay there, getting used to the dull aches of his sore muscles and the slightly sharper pain of his injured arm. After a while, he could hear the usual noises coming from next door. Now that he’d met Inoo and Daiki, he felt a bit like a voyeur listening, but he guessed they really didn’t care.

Yabu rolled over and finally put a pillow over his head. He thought that maybe Takaki was wrong about the two of them not really dating. Despite their arguments earlier, there had been a tenderness to their interactions. And it made sense to him. Even though he’d only been here a week, Yabu was quickly learning that you needed some sort of support if you wanted to survive in The Jungle.

***

“You look like you’ve had a rough day,” Yabu said as Takaki stepped into the apartment with a large smear of what looked to be grease or motor oil or something plastered in his hair and dripping down his face.

“Yep,” Takaki answered as he walked straight to the bathroom. “Of course all the machinery at work would decide to have a meltdown right before it was time to leave.” He didn’t say anything else as he shut the door behind him.

After a few months, Yabu had seemed to settle into a routine. He’d work, he’d eat, he’d fight. He had gotten banged up and bruised up, but he apparently had a 65% win rate in his fights (Daiki had calculated that up once for him while Inoo was removing some of Yabu’s stitches). He still didn’t like the fighting much, but the money really was better than what he got at work.

Somehow he had grown accustomed to his new life. But there were rare quiet moments when he thought about that brief glimpse of Paradiso he had seen on that first day. He thought about those green trees, those clean streets, that comfort the people there had. He wondered if he would ever be able to make it up there. He’d asked around but no one ever had a story about knowing someone who worked their way up to the surface, even though they’d all been told that with enough hard work, they could one day enter the city. There were a few stories about people that had mysteriously disappeared, but whether or not those people had gotten into Paradiso, no one could say for sure.

“Let’s go see Chinen,” Takaki announced as he emerged from the bathroom much cleaner than before. “I need a break from everything.”

Yabu put away the stuff he had planned to cook for dinner and searched around for his shoes. Going to see their friend Chinen was probably a good idea. Their dinner otherwise was going to be some overripe vegetables in a stir-fry he’d hoped would remove most of the disgusting taste. The immigrants in the underground mostly received the unwanted foods from above. At Chinen’s place, however, there was always good food to eat even if no one knew where he managed to procure it all.

And spending the evening away from the apartment would probably do Takaki some good. The longer Yabu lived with Takaki, the more he learned about him. Inoo and Daiki had been right; it took a while for Takaki to open up to people. But slowly, through late-night conversations on their cots and a few practice fights for Yabu’s benefit, he was beginning to see what kind of person Takaki was. He had a silly streak that would appear at the oddest times. Sometimes that meant he’d attempt to juggle the ingredients for their dinner, and other times it was just simply seeing him laugh loudly at one of Yabu’s lame jokes. Yabu liked Takaki best when he was smiling.

But more often than not, Takaki wore a more serious expression on his face, particularly when things were busy at the textile factory where he worked. He never complained much though. Takaki would just simply shrug it off. “Work is work,” he’d always say. “That’s just the way it is.”

As they walked together to Chinen’s place, a small restaurant/bar on the edge of the underground, Takaki talked about his day and Yabu was listening but he was also looking at the buildings they passed by. A vast majority of The Jungle was made up of factories for manufacturing anything the citizens of Paradiso needed. On some days it felt like everything they did was for the people above. The immigrants got little, if nothing, in return.

There were almost too many of them down here. Too many people vying for space and food and a chance at life. Yabu thought that’s maybe why no one ever questioned the street fighting system. There was all this aggression and anger about being trapped that they had to let it out somewhere. The fights kept them all too focused on each other and never focused on what went on above their heads day after day.

Chinen’s restaurant bar was located right by the high wall that went up and up forever until it connected to the ceiling. It wasn’t anything too fancy but Chinen was friendly and eager to give away free snacks in return for trying new drinks he came up with.

“Well if it isn’t Sunshine and Rain,” the guy behind the bar said with a smirk as the two of them walked in. Yabu had quickly learned that Chinen Yuri was even shorter than Yamada but full of spirit. He was a bit of a mystery though, and also claimed to be a competent computer hacker. Yabu had never even seen a computer before he’d come to Paradiso, so he just figured Chinen was telling the truth. He had also picked up Yamada’s nickname for Yabu and, in fact, all of Yabu’s friends had started calling him Sunshine because of his endless optimism. And by default, that made Takaki the Rain. Yabu suspected that Takaki used to be more sunshine than rain himself but ten years in The Jungle had worn him down. Takaki may have been an excellent fighter but The Jungle was one hell of an opponent.

“What brings you to my humble establishment this evening?” Chinen asked, putting away what he was working on. He leaned on the counter and propped his chin up with his fist. He had a typical devilish glint in his eyes. “I hope it’s for the riveting conversation.”

“Actually we’re just here for the food and the alcohol,” Takaki teased as he and Yabu picked a table. They were currently the only ones in the place.

“Oh!” Chinen feigned surprise. “I just happen to have both right here.” He pulled out a bottle of whiskey from underneath the counter as though he’d been ready for that exact request. “You want the usual?”

“Yes please,” Yabu said. Now that they were at the bar, he was already craving the food. When he’d first arrived at Paradiso, he’d been so hungry that the soup he ate was the most amazing thing he’d ever tasted. But he soon realized that nothing compared to the dishes in Chinen’s restaurant. He had no idea what Chinen had to do to get a hold of the fresh ingredients for his salads, but he certainly wasn’t going to question it.

Since he wasn’t busy, Chinen came and sat with them while they ate dinner and caught up each other on everyone’s lives. Because Chinen seemed to know half the people in the city, he was always telling them the latest gossip and rumors. Things like which factories were increasing production, which fighters were winning most often, and what might possibly be going on above in Paradiso.

After a while, Chinen left them alone with their whiskey bottle and went back behind the bar. He said he had things to continue working on as he silently went back to typing away at the small computer Yabu had once seen hidden on a shelf underneath the bar.

“Are you trying to get drunk?” Yabu asked Takaki as soon as he noticed the other down two shots in a row and was about to pour another. He’d seen Takaki drink a few times, especially when they were at Chinen’s place, but Takaki had never gotten flat out wasted. Not to the level that Nakajima Yuto fought at.

“I didn’t want the bottle to go to waste,” Takaki explained. “You weren’t drinking anything.”

“Give me that,” Yabu said and snatched the bottle out of his hand. Just to prove himself, he downed three shots in a row. And then tried not to wince like he’d just been punched in the throat during a match.

“You’re gonna regret that later,” Takaki said with a half amused smile. He had already poured himself another shot but he didn’t drink it yet. Instead he just looked wistfully at the amber liquid swirling around in the glass. There was a nasty purple-ish bruise on his wrist from where he’d been knocked down during a fight last week and landed hard on the pavement.

“I regret it right now,” Yabu laughed. “And in the morning too with a nasty hangover when I go to work.”

At the word work, Takaki grimaced and drank the shot. “Don’t mention work right now. Anything but that.”

“What should we talk about then?”

There was a long silence while Takaki pondered the question. The only sound was the clicks of the keyboard as Chinen worked on his computer over in the corner.

“Tell me about the outside,” Takaki answered. “I don’t… it’s hard sometimes to remember what it was like.”

Yabu leaned back in his chair as he thought about what he could say. “It’s… bright,” Yabu began. It had been months but he could still vividly remember the sun shining bright on his skin, sometimes burning his face and arms with unbearable warmth. But Yabu thought the experience was worth the pain. “Sometimes when the angle is just right, everything glitters in the sunlight and it looks like a dream. Even on cloudy and rainy days, there’s still enough light breaking through the clouds to make it beautiful.” Yabu paused to take another shot and then continued, the alcohol magnifying his nostalgic feelings. “And the moon! Oh, the full moon on some nights. It seemed to spread across the sky like a giant balloon. Well actually, there aren’t things like balloons around anymore, but I read about them in old books.” He stopped again. “Sorry, I think I’m getting a bit carried away.”

“No, it’s great,” Takaki said, vehemently shaking his head. “Tell me more. What about the people? The places? Where did you come from? Everything,” he breathed.

“I lived in a little village, not many people, not much food to eat. The roof on my house was damaged by a tree that got knocked over during a storm once. The storms out there get so terrible sometimes. It was kind of terrifying for a while, not knowing whether the roof was going to fall in on me while I was sleeping. But even with its flaws, I didn’t hate it.”

“The roof,” Takaki mused. “Kind of like the floor of Paradiso, our ceiling, could come crashing down on us at anytime. Don’t you ever think about that?”

“I try not to.”

The bottle of whiskey was more than half empty now but they both poured another shot.

“So why did you leave your village?” Takaki questioned. He leaned forward, waiting for the answer. His balance was a little off and he tilted slightly to the left.

Yabu set his glass down and rubbed his face. He felt kind of flushed. “Everyone says life in the dome cities is better. I wanted that something better. I wanted to reach out and take it with my own hands.” He mimed the gesture as he spoke. “Nothing ever changes if you don’t get up and do something about it.”

“That’s true. But you know what’s funny though?” Takaki asked. “You can change the word dome to doom quite easily.”

Yabu snorted as Takaki laughed drunkenly at his dumb joke. It wasn’t really funny at all, but they’d had a lot to drink already.

“I wish I had never come to this city,” Takaki declared suddenly. “I want to go somewhere with lots of water and sand. A place where I can plant my fern and let it grow naturally.” Takaki laid his head down on the table. The bottle was empty now. “Do you think we’ll ever get to go some day?”

Yabu leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling of the restaurant. It looked sturdy enough, but he guessed you never really could tell for sure.

“One day,” he said. “One day we will. I’ll take you myself.”

There was silence again and Yabu could tell Takaki was slowly sinking into sadness. And he didn’t want that. Not right now. Not after they’d just devoured a whole bottle of whiskey.

“Hey Chinen,” he called out over his shoulder suddenly. Takaki lifted his head up at the noise. Chinen who’d been caught up in his own little world jumped as well and turned his attention back over to his only customers. “Do you have any music? Something fun?”

Chinen didn’t even blink at the strange request. Instead he grinned and fiddled around with his equipment for a few seconds before a simple, happy tune began to play. He then disappeared into his kitchen, saying something about dishes that needed to be washed.

“Let’s dance,” Yabu commanded. He stood up and waved his arms for Takaki to do the same. He ungracefully climbed onto his chair, pausing a moment only to try to stabilize his shaky balance. “Let’s forget,” he continued. “Tonight, right here, right now, we forget about every bit of shit in our lives. We forget about the hard things we’ve faced in the past and the hard things we’ll face in the future. None of it matters right now.”

“What the hell,” Takaki said and stood on his chair as well. He was still tilting to the side but he managed not to fall over.

Yabu closed his eyes and let the sounds wash over him. He listened for the beat, trying to get the feel of the rhythm as he started swaying slowly side to side. As he got more into it, he moved his arms too. He could pretend he was spinning webs with his hands and fingers, moving them in complicated patterns until they would fill up the room.

He opened his eyes and grinned to see Takaki dancing as well. He was a bit clumsy and out of sync with the tune, but he looked like he was enjoying himself. He looked happy. The bits of sunshine that had long been buried underneath his cloudy exterior began to peek through, just barely.

They kept dancing until Chinen came back from the kitchen and told them he was closing up for the night. By that time, the two of them had migrated to dancing on top of the table and it was a miracle that neither one of them had fallen off yet. Chinen made some silly joke about the scene, but smiled as he shooed them out the door.

The mood was nice as they both walked down the dirty streets and past rundown buildings, discussing whatever popped into their heads. But when they were only a few streets away from the apartment, they heard the sounds of shouting from somewhere nearby.

“What’s that?” Yabu asked. He had thought it was a street fight at first, but that always involved a multitude of people shouting. This sounded more like one person, a woman’s voice.

“Let’s not worry about it,” Takaki said. He took a few steps towards home but Yabu turned to follow the source. He was curious. He couldn’t make out the words at this distance.

“Hey!” Takaki called out and followed after him.

As he got closer, the words began to become more distinct and defined. But they didn’t make much sense. The woman sounded like she was shouting mostly nonsense. Something about freedom and the future and jumping. But her words didn’t connect. It was like she was saying them out of order, like her brain could only skip around to the main points. Yabu wanted to see this person, figure out what was going on. He was close, just another turn around the corner would give him answers, but then Takaki grabbed his arm with surprising force. Yabu felt his fingernails dig into the soft skin of his wrist.

He stopped, wide-eyed, to look at Takaki with a confused expression. “Don’t you want to see what’s going on?”

“It’s better if you didn’t watch,” Takaki answered. The seriousness had returned to his face, suddenly more sober than he’d been in hours.

“What?” Yabu asked. “What is it? What’s going on?”

But before he got an answer, there was shrill scream followed by a loud thud as something hit the pavement hard. Yabu wrenched his arm free of Takaki’s grip and ran to see what it was. Takaki said nothing.

The scene in front of him was horrible. A sparse crowd of people had gathered around to see. They surrounded the body of a woman lying crumpled on the pavement, broken limbs twisted at odd angles and bright red blood slowly trickling from her face. One person had come close enough to check the woman’s vitals, but then declared her already dead. Slowly the crowd began to disperse one by one, but Yabu stood frozen to his spot, unable to bring himself to move.

“It’s called jungle madness,” Takaki’s voice came from behind him to break the silence. Yabu didn’t turn to face his roommate. “People just go crazy from being cooped up here too long. They start shouting crazy things and then throw themselves from the rooftops.”

Yabu glanced up at the building, up to the roof where the woman must have been standing, alive, only moments before. He felt sick in the pit of his stomach like he would throw up, but even if he opened his mouth, he didn’t think anything would come out.

“Why would anyone—”

“It’s called madness,” Takaki cut off the question. “It’s not going to make any sense.”

Yabu didn’t know how long he stood there in shock before he managed to tear himself away and point himself back towards home. Takaki was still there, waiting patiently with a sad look on his face.

“Sometimes I think,” Takaki said quietly, almost to himself than to Yabu, “that it would have been better for you if you’d never come here.”

There was never any rain in the underground, Yabu reminded himself, but he could swear that there were raindrops rolling down his face that night.

***

“You got this, Sunshine,” Yamada with a reassuring pat to Yabu’s shoulder that felt more patronizing that comforting. “Just pretend like you’re drunk too and maybe that’ll help.”

“Has anyone ever told you that your advice sucks?” Yabu shot back.

His fight was about to start and his opponent was Yuto again. Even though he had seen Yuto around a few times during these past couple months, this was their first rematch. Yabu was better at fighting now—that feeling of nervous energy wasn’t as overwhelming as before—but Yuto was different. Yuto was the first person who had knocked him flat on his face.

“Anticipate,” Takaki said, adding his own advice. “Watch his moves and figure them out before he does.”

“Sure, it’s really easy to predict what a drunk person will do,” Yabu muttered under his breath. He was appreciative of their help but it wasn’t lessening his anxiety.

Inoo and Daiki had come to watch the match as well. Yabu felt Inoo’s hand against his back as he gleefully shoved Yabu out into the open.

“Just don’t think about anything,” he shouted out his own advice.

“Just don’t listen to Kei’s advice,” Daiki added with his own shout.

Nakajima Yuto stumbled forward into the open, swaying like a lone tree caught in the wind. His bloodshot eyes squinted at Yabu as though he needed more time to focus on the person in front of him. But then he smirked and Yabu knew the fight was about to begin.

A flash of blond hair rushed towards him but Yabu was ready this time. He countered with a swinging right hook before Yuto even had a chance to land the blow. Once the first punch was thrown it was like a flood of nonstop punches pouring out after that. It was so fast that Yabu didn’t even have time to register the pain from the hits that landed.

Yuto laughed as Yabu knocked him sideways with a hard punch to the side of his head. He managed to stay on his feet with all the unexplained grace of a drunken fighter, much to the disappointment of Yabu who realized that he was going to have to change tactics. He backed away a few steps, slowing down the momentum of the fight.

They circled around like vultures waiting to pounce. Yabu took a few deep breaths to regain his composure. He thought he may have forgotten to breathe a few times while he was all jacked up on adrenaline. He was in the zone right now. He couldn’t even hear the sound of the crowd surrounding him anymore. Yabu watched Yuto intently, trying to take Takaki’s advice and anticipate his next move. Everything almost seemed to transition into slow motion as his eyes swept over Yuto’s long limbs, bruises already beginning to show up along his forearms.

And then, there it was. Yabu saw Yuto’s legs begin to bend, preparing to drop to the ground and sweep Yabu off his feet just as he had in their last fight. Suddenly, the world sped up again and the sound of the crowd filled his ears, and Yabu managed to leap straight up into the air to avoid Yuto’s attack.

The miss disrupted Yuto’s strategy and he floundered a bit from the extra momentum, losing his balance, for once, and ending up flat on the pavement. Yabu took the opportunity to lunge forward to pin him down, but Yuto was ready even when he was down. His foot connected with Yabu’s stomach halfway. Yabu was amazed at how fast Yuto scrambled back to his feet. Again, they began throwing punches at a furious pace, most of them landing. There was blood dripping down Yabu’s face but he didn’t even have the time to figure out where exactly it was coming from. All he could hear right now was the sickening thud of fists making contact with skin echoing along with Yuto’s drunken laughter.

Yabu thought he might be wearing Yuto down a bit. Their fight had lasted longer than usual and it had been a while since Yuto had had anything to drink. He definitely looked like he was tired. But just as Yabu thought he might have the upper hand, Yuto surprised him by grabbing Yabu’s left arm and forcefully yanking him forward before throwing him to the ground. Yabu tried to get back up but Yuto’s whole body was on top of him, pinning him down, their long limbs tangled together.

The pavement felt cold and rough against Yabu’s cheek. Yabu was about to struggle and fight back but suddenly the image of the woman flashed into his head. The woman’s lifeless body that had lain still and broken on the ground. It had been a few weeks since then but the sight still haunted him during brief quiet moments when he felt so alone. And now he was thinking about her again as he himself was pressed flat against the pavement. He thought about how easily it could have been him or Takaki or anyone who had thrown themselves from the rooftop. Because this place, this jungle, drove them to that. It drove them to that point where desperation was their only option.

Yabu stopped fighting back. He didn’t want to anymore. He was pretty sure that he had already lost the match anyway. His strength was giving out.

When everyone realized that Yabu had stopped moving, Yuto was declared the winner. The weight lifted from his body and Yabu found a hand unexpectedly invading his vision. He reached out and grabbed it. Looking up, he saw that the hand was Yuto’s and he was grinning at him.

“That was a stellar match, man. Stellar,” he said. He was squinting at Yabu again, trying to focus, but he looked genuinely happy. Yabu wiped away the blood dripping from his nose and shook his opponent’s hand. Yuto just seemed to be that sort of person that you couldn’t stay mad at; he just radiated friendliness. He had beat Yabu into the ground but Yabu didn’t even feel that upset about it.

The two of them migrated out of the fighting area, past the people, over to a sparsely crowded area where his friends were already waiting. Yabu noticed that Yuto was walking with a limp he didn’t have before, but he wasn’t sure whether that was from the alcohol or an injury. Either way, Yuto didn’t complain about it.

“I thought you were dead,” Inoo shouted overdramatically and wrapped Yabu into a hug as soon as he saw him.

“We were a little worried when you stopped moving there for a minute,” Daiki admitted as he pried Inoo away. “Sorry that you lost. It was so close, we thought you had it this time.”

“It was really close,” Yamada said. He noticed Yuto had come along as well. The two of them had recently become friends after fighting a match themselves. “You might be losing your touch,” he teased.

“My touch?” Yuto repeated, and then patted his pockets as though his touch was a tangible object. “Where is it?” And then he laughed loudly at his dumb joke.

While the group began to discuss Yuto’s taste in humor, Takaki pulled Yabu over to the side. “Are you okay?” he questioned. He looked worried. “Anything you need Inoo to look at?”

“My nose isn’t broken so I think I’m good.”

“I really thought you were gonna win this time, but you stopped fighting back there at the end.”

Yabu nodded and looked up towards the ceiling hanging high above their heads. “Yeah, I know. I just…” he trailed off. What he wanted to tell Takaki was that he just didn’t want to fight anymore. But he didn’t think his friend would understand. “I’ll just do better next time.”

“Guys,” Yamada called out to them, interrupting the conversation. “We’re all going to Chinen’s. You coming?”

“Sure,” Takaki said and looked over to see if Yabu was going too.

Yabu knew that he had dried blood on his hands, face, and shirt from where his nose had been bleeding earlier. “I think I’m gonna go home and change first and meet you guys there.”

He said his goodbyes and set off down the streets alone, easily slipping into a maze of his own thoughts as he navigated the maze of streets. He was beginning to second guess everything. Had everything been a mistake? Should he have left his village? Should he have come to Paradiso? Should he keep fighting?

He didn’t know the answers. When he had first set out on his journey, he thought things would be better. He thought he had hit rock bottom in his village and the only place he had left to go was up. How could he have known that he would wind up in the opposite direction, trapped down beneath the ground in something like a grave? The Jungle was a harsh, cruel place. He had his friends at least, but that didn’t stop the things he had witnessed here. He never imagined he’d be walking home covered in his own blood.

While he had been thinking, he hadn’t been paying much attention to where his feet were taking him. He realized he didn’t recognize where he was anymore. It wasn’t that unusual. He was forever taking wrong turns and ending up completely lost. He stopped to gather his bearings, and that’s when he suddenly felt a hand reach out of nowhere and capture his neck in a tight grip. The hand pushed up his chin and forced his head upwards so that he couldn’t open his mouth to yell for help. And as if that wasn’t enough, not a second later he could feel the unmistakable cold metallic feel of a knife pressed against his jugular. He wondered whether the attacker could feel the vibrations of the rhythm of his erratic pulse through the knife.

“Hello there,” the voice attached to the hands said. Yabu could feel his breath against his left ear. “I watched your match with Nakajima earlier.”

Yabu strained against the hand and managed to spit out a few strangled words. “Did… you bet… on… me and lose… money?” he asked. He couldn’t think of any other reason why someone would hold a knife to his throat in a dark back alley.

“No, I bet on Nakajima,” the voice explained. “You see, Yuto fights for me. We have a deal worked out. I get some of the money he earns on fights. But that deal doesn’t work so well for me when he gets injured.”

Yabu remembered the limp Yuto had earlier. He must have twisted his ankle badly when he was trying to knock Yabu off his feet.

“Well sorry,” Yabu spat out with great effort. The pressure to his throat hadn’t lifted. He hoped the sarcasm translated through his gritted teeth. He was angry. Was he really about to be killed in some back alley just because some guy was gonna lose some money?

No, he decided. Even if the rest of his life was a disappointment and daily monotony of The Jungle was the only thing he had to look forward to, he wasn’t ready to give up yet. His strong will to live surprised even himself. If there was one thing he’d learned here, it was how to fight back.

Yabu leaned back into the body of the man ever so slightly just to give himself some leverage, and so as not to tip him off to his plan. And then, as quickly and with as much force as he could, he stomped on his attacker’s foot. It provided just enough distraction for the grip on his neck to be loosened, and Yabu could fight back. He lashed out with as much force as he could muster up again, and blindly swung his arms behind him. The mistake the attacker had made was assuming that the knife alone would threaten Yabu enough to not resist.

The attacker, of course, did not give up so easily, and Yabu tried to focus enough to watch the hand with the knife. It swung past his ear but missed cutting him. Now that he’d broken free from the man’s clutches, Yabu finally managed to pivot around, fist raised in order to throw a punch. But he froze as soon as he saw the person’s face.

“Hikaru.” The name slipped out of his mouth.

“You’ve heard of me?”

I know you,” Yabu answered, still shocked. The face was older, more mature, but Yabu was positive that his childhood friend, Yaotome Hikaru, was standing in front of him, threatening his life with a knife. It had been so long but there was just no mistaking that face.

The angry features of Hikaru’s face softened into confusion. He blinked as he examined Yabu’s face, searching for familiarity in the features.

“Kota?”

“It’s been what? At least fifteen years? But you do still remember me, yeah?” Yabu said. His adrenaline rush had crashed and he was suddenly reminded of his need to breathe. He leaned forward slightly as he tried to catch his breath, but he tried not to look like he was too vulnerable.

“How long have you been here?” Hikaru asked, almost suspicious of their coincidental meeting. He had lowered his knife, but hadn’t put it down completely.

“Just a few months. You?”

“I’ve lost track. But fifteen years sounds about right,” Hikaru answered. He still didn’t know how to react to this unforeseen event. His eyes swept over Yabu, still trying to process everything. “You’re taller.”

Yabu laughed at the unexpected response. Fifteen years they hadn’t seen each other, and yet the only thing Hikaru could say was a comment on his growth spurt.

“I see your face finally caught up to your nose,” Yabu added, completely unfazed. Hikaru was still an unknown threat but he just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to make that joke. When they
were children, Yabu had always made jokes about Hikaru’s nose and Hikaru had returned the favor in kind by making fun of Yabu’s grin that made his eyes disappear.

“You haven’t changed much,” Hikaru said.

“You’ve changed a lot,” Yabu said. The friend he knew would never have sunk to these depths of desperation. He couldn’t quite wrap his head around the difference between this person and the young child from back in his village.

“I’ve done what I had to do to survive here,” Hikaru said. “This is The Jungle. The weak don’t survive here and I’m anything but weak.”

“So I’ve heard.” He remembered Daiki’s story about how Hikaru had broken his hand in a fight. But he also remembered the friendly child who would share what little food he had with Yabu because he thought he was too skinny. A worrier, that kid Hikaru was.

“You’ve caused me a problem,” Hikaru broke the silence, returning them to reason why they were facing each other with fists and knives raised in an alleyway. His voice was dripping with menace again.

“Listen,” Yabu was beginning to get annoyed now. He had just decided that he didn’t want to fight and deal with problems like this anymore. “It wasn’t my fault Yuto got hurt in the match. That’s his problem. I don’t know what you think you’ll accomplish by threatening me.”

“You really don’t understand how it works down here, do you?”

Yabu remembered the young guard, Keito, telling him the exact same thing when he had first arrived in Paradiso. Nothing here ever changed. Everything was set in its own routine and no one questioned it. It was always “that’s just the way it is,” as they all said. But Yabu realized, right in this moment, that he hated it. This wasn’t how things should be. His life wasn’t supposed to be one that played out in an underground cage. And that pissed him off.

“Okay then,” he said, digging out every bit of anger suddenly coursing through his veins right now. “Okay. If a fight is what you want, then you’ve got it.” He didn’t want to fight any more but he would if it was necessary to start changing things.

Hikaru looked briefly taken aback by his shift in mood, but then he tossed the knife to the ground and put his fists up, clenched tightly, ready for battle. This was his element. This was where he was comfortable.

This time, contrary to the fight with Yuto, Yabu made the first move and lunged forward. But Hikaru was skilled in dodging, and easily avoided Yabu’s fists. Yabu’s anger got the best of him for a bit and his defense was sloppy. Hikaru’s blows packed a lot of force and it hurt. His nose was bleeding again but he ignored it the best he could. Yabu knew he was at a bit of disadvantage, having not seen Hikaru’s fighting style before, so he pulled back a bit and observed his movements. Takaki had taught him the importance of that.

Hikaru moved with a sense of powerful strength hidden just underneath the surface. The pain on the left side of Yabu’s body where most of the punches had landed showed him that Hikaru favored his left over his right. Since Yabu had pulled back, Hikaru also stepped back to assess the situation. His shoulders hunched forward while his dark eyes studied the scene, planning his next attack. He was an animal, a cornered animal running on wild instinct. And Yabu knew you could never predict what a desperate, wounded animal would do.

Before Yabu could finish his assessment, Hikaru decided that he had waited long enough and sprang into motion again, throwing a punch straight at his face. As the fist came closer, a brief flash of memory invaded his vision. A memory of a day so long ago where the two of them had been playing in the stream that ran through the village, splashing around the edges and hopping from rock to rock. But the rocks were slippery and there was one in particular that jutted out at a sharp angle. Yabu had avoided it but Hikaru hadn’t. He lost his balance and twisted his leg at an angle similar to the rock’s. Yabu heard him cry out in pain right before he fell face first into the water.

The twisted fall had injured Hikaru’s knee so badly that he hadn’t been able to walk again for weeks afterwards. As Yabu remembered this, he wondered if the old injury still gave him problems. It was obvious that he fought more with the uninjured side of his body.

Before Hikaru’s punch could land, Yabu dropped low, taking a page from Yuto’s fighting book, and swung his leg out. Instead of going for the feet, he connected with the side of Hikaru’s knee. It buckled, sending Hikaru down to the ground, giving Yabu the opportunity to pin him.

Once he was down, Hikaru stopped struggling. Instead, he laughed.

“You’re the only person in fifteen years who’s managed to hit my weak spot. And that’s only because you knew about it.”

Yabu couldn’t stop himself from laughing too. The tension in the air dissolved with the sound. “This is ridiculous. This whole thing is ridiculous.” The absurdity of the situation—he, bloody and bruised, holding down his former best friend in some dark dirty back alley—hit him hard. “We’re old friends. Normal people would have just shaken hands and maybe hugged as they reunite. Instead, we just beat each other up.”

“Yeah,” Hikaru agreed, with a chuckle. “You’re bleeding all over my shirt.”

Without having to say anything, they both knew the fight was over and the anger was gone. Yabu stood up and held his hand out for Hikaru too. The other took it. He leaned a bit to the side because of the blow to his bad knee but he looked to be okay.

“During our fight, I remembered the time you fell into the stream and messed up your knee,” Yabu explained. “I hadn’t thought about that in a long time.”

Hikaru looked away, down the alley back towards the street. “I remember it well. You saved me that day.”

It was true. As soon as Hikaru and fallen in, Yabu had jumped in after him. Hikaru was panicking, flailing around in the water and sinking towards the bottom. But Yabu had pulled with all the measly strength his small arms had and dragged Hikaru to the edge. And then they had both laid there on the bank, side by side, dripping wet and reeling from what had just happened. Hikaru was in too much pain to move, so they just stayed there until someone came by to help them.

“I jumped in because you can’t swim,” Yabu said.

“I still can’t,” Hikaru added. “Not that there’s any water down here to worry about.”

Silence filled up the alleyway and Hikaru reached down to retrieve his knife and put it away. Yabu wondered what he should do.

“Hey…” he began hesitantly. “I was supposed to be meeting up with my friends. Do you… want to join? We have a lot of catching up to do, I think.”

Hikaru frowned, thinking about the offer. Yabu almost second-guessed his words. Here in the underground, amongst all the immigrants, Hikaru was known as a fearsome fighter. Not someone to be trifled with. All the whispered stories about Hikaru did not paint him as a nice person. But then, in Yabu’s eyes, Hikaru looked worn down. Just like Takaki and anyone else who had been in The Jungle for a long time, he’d been beaten down. Maybe he didn’t need to fight anymore either. Perhaps it was just that he’d been alone for too long in this vile place.

“Okay,” Hikaru agreed. “But you’re not allowed to tell your friends about my weak spot.”

Yabu felt his lip curl up in a half-smile. “It’ll sound better if I beat you without an advantage,” he pointed out.

The two of them walked slowly together as Yabu led him back towards Chinen’s restaurant. He didn’t mind that there was more dried blood on his face now and that he still hadn’t changed out of his messed up clothes. There was a weird feeling creeping up in his bones. And he was surprised when he finally identified it as happiness. He’d almost forgotten what that had felt like.

Chinen’s restaurant had a closed sign on the door but Yabu could see the light shining through the window and the silhouettes of his friends having a good time together. Yabu knocked and yelled a quick “it’s me” to let them know he was there.

Yamada was the one who answered the door but his smile quickly faltered as he noticed Yabu was still covered in blood and Yaotome Hikaru, the most feared fighter in the underground, was with him. He took a few steps back, looking panicked. The rest of the group stopped what they were doing to see what was going on. They were instantly on guard at the sight of Hikaru. Daiki sprang to his feet, but Inoo grabbed his wrist. His lips were twisted into an uncharacteristically worried frown. Takaki took a few cautious stops forward, his eyes more focused on seeing if Yabu was okay.

“Well this is awkward,” Yuto said from over where he was resting with his ice-wrapped ankle propped up on a table. Chinen shushed and elbowed him in the ribs.

“Look who I found on the way home,” Yabu spoke lightly, his words punctuated with nervous laughter. He hoped he could diffuse the tension growing in the air. “I found an old friend I haven’t seen since I was a kid.” He pointed to Hikaru as if that needed clarification.

“I can’t imagine you as a little kid,” Yuto said to Hikaru, because Yuto was clearly still too drunk to know when to shut up. Chinen looked like he was going to elbow him again but then realized it was a lost cause.

Everyone still looked suspicious so Yabu changed tactics.

“The two of us had a fight and I won. If you let us come in, I’ll tell you all about it.”

This seemed to work because none of them could hide their surprise. Hikaru had a reputation that preceded him. A reputation of a ruthless fighter, brutal and merciless, who never lost a match. Ever. He was the king of the jungle, so to speak. The group all crowded around one of the tables, pulling chairs together and waiting to hear the story. Hikaru seemed to have no idea how to interact with all of them, so he hovered by the edge until Yabu pulled a chair out for him. He wasn’t going to say anything but knew Hikaru probably needed to sit down and rest his knee.

Everyone listened as Yabu told them stories of brighter days, when he was young and the world didn’t seem all that terrible. Hikaru even chimed in a few times with details from his own point of view, but he sounded uncomfortable, almost apologetic for being in the restaurant with all of them. No one knew how to react to this turn of events. The only person who made much of a move was Daiki. He absentmindedly flexed his hand that had once been broken by Hikaru. It had been years ago but it seemed he hadn’t forgotten the pain of his injuries.

When Yabu finished his stories, no one seemed to know what to say. It was silent in the room except for a few of Daiki’s hacking coughs which he tried to cover up. Even Yuto looked like he had finally sobered up some. Yabu struggled to think of something else to say to fix this weird moment he’d caused in the group. But then Chinen picked up a bottle of alcohol sitting on the table and set it down in front of Hikaru before pushing an unused glass towards him too.

“If Sunshine says that you aren’t the completely horrible person we’ve all heard about for years, then I guess there must be something good about you. Somewhere deep inside there I guess,” Chinen said with his usual smirk.

“Sunshine?” Hikaru questioned.

“Blame Yamada,” Yabu said with a casual shrug. He poured a drink of his own. He swallowed it fast because the taste of blood had settled into his mouth, mixing with the alcohol and leaving bitterness behind.

“Seems fitting,” Hikaru said with a shrug of his own.

With that, everything seemed to start moving again. The conversation resumed and things felt less tense. Their impromptu party got back underway even though there was one extra person now. Hikaru didn’t say much except to Yuto occasionally. Yamada and Daiki started talking until Inoo interrupted them with a drinking game challenge, and Chinen wandered back to his computer. Yabu grinned as he looked over the room, and then sat down beside Takaki.

“You look strange with all that blood on your shirt,” Takaki said.

Yabu looked down and laughed, remembering again that he never made it back to change his clothes. “It’s all mine though.” He picked at the dried stains before speaking again. “I think it’s time for me to retire.”

Takaki raised an eyebrow in confusion. “You may act like an old man, but you’re not old enough to quit working yet.”

“I meant from fighting,” Yabu clarified. He decided that he had to tell this to someone even though Takaki probably wouldn’t understand. The street fighting in The Jungle had been his way of life for ten years. Yabu, however, had only been at it a few months. “This place turns us into animals. We shouldn’t be fighting each other. We should be working together to make a better life for each other.”

Takaki took a sip of his drink and regarded him with skepticism. “We live down here, we fight down here, we die down here. Do you think you can change the world?”

“I don’t need to change the world. We just need to change ourselves. The world will follow after.”

Takaki didn’t say anything for a bit. Instead he watched the progression of the drinking game still going on between Yamada, Daiki, and Inoo. Their raucous laughter was distracting everyone in the room. Finally Takaki turned back to Yabu and looked him in the eye. “I’m glad that we’re friends. It’s nice to talk to someone other than my plant.”

Yabu smiled. “I’m glad I met you.”

“Guys,” Yuto called out from across the room, “stop being all sappy or whatever in the corner and come join us.” He had dragged Hikaru and himself into the drinking game as well and wanted everyone else to enjoy the fun. “You too, Chinen!”

Chinen just gave a dismissive wave without even looking up from his computer. He was too focused on the screen to pull himself away right now.

“I propose a toast,” Yuto said. He tried to stand in his chair but his balance was off and the injured ankle didn’t help matters. So he gave up and just stretched his arm as high as he could into the air, making the contents of his glass swish around dangerously. Everyone else followed suit and waited for what Yuto was going to say.

“I propose a toast,” he repeated again. “To—”

“It’s a conspiracy,” Chinen interrupted. There was a strange tone to his voice, as though he hadn’t realized he was talking out loud.

“That’s not what I was going to say?” Yuto said.

They turned to Chinen who was staring at his computer screen with a look of horror on his face. “It’s all a conspiracy. Everything. Every goddamn thing.”

“What the hell are you even talking about?” Yamada asked. This wasn’t like Chinen.

They all moved closer to the bar to hear more. Chinen set his computer up on the counter. He looked shaken as he tried to find the right words to explain. “Sometimes I try to hack into Paradiso’s government computers to find out information. Mostly about when to get the good food and stuff like that. But today I was working on a decryption algorithm for the ridiculous firewall in the government computers at the highest level. Just because I was curious to see.” Chinen didn’t even pause to explain the hacker jargon that no one else understood. “I’ve been waiting for it to decode and I just got it.”

“So what’s the conspiracy?” Takaki asked.

Chinen paused a moment to compose himself. He looked like he didn’t even want to answer because saying it out loud would make it real. “The trackers in our necks aren’t trackers at all.”

Yabu unconsciously rubbed the back of his neck, remembering when they’d inserted that small piece of metal there when he’d first arrived at the city. The man had told him it was standard procedure. The little pinprick had healed quickly and Yabu had forgotten about it since then. He didn’t really care whether he was being tracked or not since anyone watching would just see him constantly getting lost in the underground.

“It’s actually a complex computer chip created to control body functions if necessary,” Chinen said. He showed them the screen and then tapped at the keyboard, erasing the data and any trace that he’d been in the system. “They function as trackers too, keeping tabs on us if we manage to make it to the surface, but the main purpose is to control the body.”

“What the hell?” Hikaru swore. The implications of this new information were slowly sinking in.

“You’re saying we aren’t in charge of ourselves? How is that even possible?” Daiki asked. He coughed again and everyone looked more concerned than usual.

Chinen explained the data he had just looked over. The chips were designed to interact with the body’s nervous system. With signals from the controller, they could do all sorts of horrible things. Make the body sick like it was suffering from an illness, make the brain suffer from “jungle madness,” or even just simply make the body shut down completely without warning. “It’s population control,” he explained. “If there are too many people down here, they can clean it up without being suspicious. And they can pick and choose who to keep. The strong live and the weak are killed.”

“The plague,” Inoo said, suddenly realizing and sharing a nasty look with Takaki. It made sense now why only some people had been stricken with the deadly sickness while others never got sick at all. The people in Paradiso had decided who could contribute the most and then kept them.

“The madness,” Yabu added. He was thinking about the woman again. That poor woman who had been driven to the depths of madness just so she would throw herself from a rooftop. Maybe she had even been happy before someone up on the surface decided that she wasn’t necessary anymore. Before someone up there tapped into that thing implanted in her body and forced her to do it. Who was to say that any of them weren’t the next in line?

“We have to take them out,” Yamada said. “How can we live now knowing that they could kill us whenever they want to?”

“But we can’t just take them out and stay here,” Hikaru pointed out. “They’ll surely notice if we destroy them or if we stop moving for a while.”

Nobody knew what to say. It was difficult to grasp the idea that they weren’t in control of their own bodies, hadn’t been since the moment they’d arrived in the city. Everyone looked at one another, not sure what to do.

“Chinen,” Takaki was the first one to speak his thoughts again. “How difficult would it be for you to find us an escape route out of here?”

Now that Takaki had said it out loud, the weight of this life-changing decision began to press down on them. The Jungle had always been like a prison. No one had ever considered the thought that they would be able to escape to anywhere other than the surface part of the city. But deep down, they knew that’s what they’d need to do. They needed to get as far away from this vile city as possible.

Chinen took a deep breath before he answered. “I know of a way to reach the surface, but I’ll need to look at a few maps to find a way out of Paradiso from there. Realistically, we’d probably need the help of a guard to get out without being killed.”

“I know a guard,” Yabu said as everyone turned to stare at him. “Well I don’t really know him but I got him to tell me his name when I first arrived here. I was trying to be friendly. I don’t know if he would help us, but he might remember my face. It’s only been a few months.”

“What’s the name?” Chinen asked, already typing away at his computer again. “I’ll find him.”

“Okamoto Keito.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Chinen said.

Takaki nodded. “Next thing then,” he turned to Inoo. “Do you think you can dig the trackers out of us without damaging them?”

Inoo’s eyes widened with the question. “I… have no idea,” he admitted honestly. He had had little opportunity to practice surgical skills here. “But I will try.” He took a shaky breath and looked at his hands. “I think I need about an hour or so to sober up though.”

“That’ll give us enough time to pack,” Yamada said with a nod. “We shouldn’t leave without having supplies.”

“Right,” Yabu agreed. Food was hard to come by on the road and people weren’t always willing to share. “We should go pack what we need and meet back here in an hour.”

“Only the essentials,” Hikaru added. “We don’t want to look suspicious and we don’t need extra weight when we run.”

They all agreed and disappeared from the bar to go their separate ways. Yabu’s mind was so scattered, thinking about everything, he was sure that he would have gotten lost had he not been following Takaki. When they got inside the apartment, they went straight to work without a word. The two of them didn’t have much to sort through anyway.

Yabu had just finished shoving as much food as possible into his tiny bag when he noticed Takaki staring at his plant. His bag hung loosely in his hand.

“You can’t take the fern with you,” Yabu said. He knew the tiny plant was important to his friend, but it wouldn’t be easy to take it along. It would probably get damaged during the escape. He should save the space in his bag for other important things.

“I can’t just leave it behind,” Takaki said. He grabbed an old t-shirt and carefully tied it around the pot, giving the dirt a protective barrier so that it wouldn’t spill out. The shirt provided an extra bit of support for the plant stem as well. “If I just leave it, it’ll die. But if I take it with me, at least it’ll have a chance.”

Yabu didn’t understand but he couldn’t argue with the logic. “Is it that important to you?”

“Yes.”

Yabu sighed. “Then give me your bag.” He reached inside the bag and removed some of the things that were already in there, and then he placed them into his own bag, already very full. “Now you’ll have room for it.”

Takaki said nothing as he gently placed the plant into his bag and closed it up. Then he carefully put the bag on over his shoulder. “My mother liked plants,” he explained quietly as he helped Yabu tie his bag to his shoulders for extra support. “There,” he said, louder this time, when he was sure the bag was secure. He changed the subject. “Didn’t I tell you that my apartment was only a place to crash until you got your own place? Guess it really was temporary,” he reminded Yabu with a smile.

Yabu laughed because it made it easier to forget about the situation. “And didn’t I promise you that we’d get out of this city one day?”

“Let’s go,” Takaki said with a nod. They stepped out into the hallway and Takaki closed the door to 315. He didn’t even bother to lock the door and they didn’t look back.

When they returned to Chinen’s place, almost everyone was back, and Inoo was already halfway through sterilizing his tools in the kitchen. Yabu tried not to shudder as the light reflected off the metal, reminding him that those makeshift surgical tools would soon be digging into his skin. It was not long after that the last person missing returned—Yamada had gone to pack Chinen’s stuff for him as he worked on the computer. Inoo declared that he was ready.

“Who’s going to volunteer to watch and do this for me when I’m done with everyone else?” Inoo asked. Hesitantly, Takaki agreed and stepped forward.

Yabu was the first one to volunteer for the surgery. They all knew it was necessary to take the trackers out but no one wanted to take the first step, especially when Inoo still looked very unsure about the whole thing. Yabu knew it was going to hurt, but they couldn’t wait much longer.

Inoo directed him to lie face down on the kitchen prep table Chinen normally used to put his meals together. Yabu felt uncomfortable with his head hanging over the side of the table, but Inoo quickly pulled up another smaller table for Yabu to rest his forehead on. Now with that settled, Inoo had clear access to the back of his neck. He called for someone to help hold Yabu down, and Yabu soon felt two pairs of hands press into his shoulders and another press down on the back of his head.

“Bite down on this,” Inoo said, sticking a dishrag by Yabu’s teeth, “if you feel like you need to scream.”

Yabu did as he was told and bit down on the rag. It tasted disgusting, but it also provided his mind with a distraction. If he could focus on the taste of dirty dishes, maybe he wouldn’t notice Inoo working.

The first cut came without warning, and Yabu bit down automatically, already wanting to scream. It didn’t hurt much yet but the sensation was strange. He had never imagined what it would feel like to have someone digging around through the skin and muscles of his neck, working their way towards a tiny bit of metal attached to his spine. Inoo was talking, giving directions to his assistants and details to Takaki, but Yabu couldn’t focus on it. He could feel rivulets of blood running down the side of his neck as the pain increased. He closed his eyes and thought about nothing but dirty dishes. Dirty dishes he had washed back in his old house in his old village. Dirty dishes that he could have set out in the sun to dry. He continued to think about this until he felt Inoo begin to stitch the incision closed. The worst part was over but now the pain was starting to set in.

When Yabu was told that he could sit up again, he did so slowly because he felt lightheaded. Everything felt like it was in haze as he took a moment to get acclimated to the change. He saw the tracker sitting bloody but undamaged in a bowl nearby. It amazed him that something so small could cause so much trouble.

Inoo asked him a few questions to make sure he was okay before ushering him off the table, cleaning up the mess, and picking the next person to lie down. Yabu watched and helped as Inoo used his skillful long fingers to work his tools as he cut into everyone. He worked quickly but carefully, depositing the trackers into bowls one by one. Yabu almost felt nauseous watching, but he thought that also might be partially a result of the blood loss.

Takaki looked nervous when it was finally Inoo’s turn. Yabu patted him on the shoulder but knew there wasn’t much he could do to help him. Daiki looked nervous as well and stood close by holding Inoo’s hand. Takaki worked slower than Inoo had, taking his time to be precise about his movements. He breathed as sigh of relief when he found the tracker but he was having some trouble holding his hands steady. The small object was pulled out with some difficulty but finally he tossed it into the bowl. After that, Takaki went straight to stitching up the wound and stopping the bleeding.

“I’m done,” Takaki finally breathed, holding up his blood-stained hands. “But I’m not sure if Inoo’s tracker got damaged or not when I took it out.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Chinen said. “We should move quickly enough to get away before they notice one malfunctioning device.”

Inoo was disoriented but quickly rejoined the group as they scrambled to put the next part of their escape into action. Chinen showed them the route he had planned and let them know that he had figured out where Keito would be. They all grabbed their bags and followed Chinen, leaving the bloody mess in the kitchen behind.

There was no turning back now. In all probability, they could definitely die while escaping. But they had to try. They couldn’t live there anymore now that they knew what they knew.

Chinen led them through a small access tunnel hidden in the wall behind his shop. It was a tight fit for the taller ones, but they managed somehow. Yabu was grateful that he wasn’t the sort of person who panicked in small spaces. But he guessed that if he could survive makeshift surgery in a bar kitchen, then none of this should frighten him much.

The tunnel ended in what looked to be a storage room for food. Fresh vegetables were packaged into boxes stacked all over the place. Yabu realized that this solved the mystery of where Chinen got all his delicious food from.

“I’ve never been further than this room,” Chinen whispered by the door. “But I’ve memorized the floor plans so I know where to find the guard. Stay close and stay quiet.”

They all nodded and began to move but Yuto tripped over one of the boxes. Hikaru managed to grab his arm before he fell all the way and made a loud noise. The whole group turned to look at him with wide-eyed apprehension.

“Stop being such a klutz,” Yamada berated him with a whisper. He grabbed Yuto’s other arm and pulled him forward, acting as a sort of stabilizer for Yuto’s horrible balance problem. Hikaru let go and went to the back of the group.

The hallway outside of the vegetable room was bare and gray, but thankfully devoid of other people. They followed Chinen forward, almost not daring to even breathe. After twenty minutes of walking, he stopped in front of a door. It was locked but Chinen easily picked it open.

“Where are we going?” Inoo asked. Beside him, Daiki looked like he was struggling not to cough again.

Chinen swung the door open, revealing a narrow shaft with a ladder attached to the wall running straight up to the top. “This leads to the guard rooms at the top of the outer wall. From there, we’ll see if Okamoto will help us out. If not, then… well, I’ll figure out something.”

That wasn’t reassuring. Yabu reached out and grabbed the rung of the ladder. The metal was cool and for a brief moment Yabu thought about the job he was leaving behind. Shoveling coal into a furnace was always unbearably hot. The oppressive heat had always felt smothering. But the further he got away from that, the colder things felt. It was a nice feeling. He focused on that as they climbed and climbed and climbed.

At the top, Chinen cracked open the trap door above his head and looked around. “It’s clear,” he whispered and climbed out. They were again in another gray room with no windows, but this one had a desk and paperwork and other various supplies the guards might need. Chinen checked his watch. “Ah, right on time. He should be here for work in two minutes. Somebody stand by the door and grab him so he won’t make a fuss.”

Hikaru took a position by the door while everyone else took a moment to rest. Yuto’s injured ankle seemed to be giving him some trouble, but he just leaned on Yamada with a pained expression instead of saying anything. The two minutes seemed to stretch on forever since everyone was on edge. Yabu felt as nervous as he had right before his first street fight.

The door opened right on time, just as Chinen had predicted, and the young guard walked in unsuspecting of what was waiting for him. As soon as he caught a glimpse of all the people in the room, he looked shocked.

“What the—”

He couldn’t finish the exclamation since Hikaru instantly grabbed him. His arms wrapped around Keito’s body and covered his mouth. The position looked uncomfortable. Takaki took his gun away so that he wasn’t a threat.

“Hi again Keito,” Yabu said, putting on a friendly tone. He indicated that Hikaru should let him go so that the guard could breathe again at least. Hikaru frowned but loosened his grip.

“We need your help,” Yabu continued. “We’re trying to escape.” He looked to Chinen to explain what he needed Keito to do.

“We just need you to get us through the wall and out the gate without getting caught,” Chinen said. “Do you have some sort of computer around here that I can work with by the way?”

Keito looked confused as he looked around the room at each of them.

“Please help us get out of here,” Yamada said. “You don’t know what it’s like down there. We can’t go back.”

Yabu guessed that they probably looked like a mess to Keito. They were banged up and bruised from constant fights. They were tired from their escape. They all had bandages on the backs of their necks. And Yabu was still wearing his blood-covered shirt from earlier. He couldn’t blame Keito if he wouldn’t help them. When Yabu had first arrived at the city, Keito could hardly even look him in the eye.

“The computer is over there,” Keito finally spoke. He nodded towards the desk.

“Great,” Chinen said and went to work, tapping furiously away at the keys.

“Thanks,” Yabu said.

Keito looked unsure about everything but nodded. “I can show you the way to the gate but I can’t guarantee we won’t run into anyone on the way.”

“I can,” Chinen said with a confidence none of the rest of them felt, as he turned the computer back off. “It’s all set up. We’re ready.”

A beeping noise began to emit from something in Keito’s pocket. He pulled it out and looked at it. “It’s an alert for all the guards to check out a disturbance on the west side of the wall,” he said, looking confused again.

“I know,” Chinen said. “I just sent it out to everyone. Now this side will be unguarded so we can go without confrontation. Lead the way,” he gestured to the door. “It won’t take long for them to realize that there’s nothing there.”

Takaki thrust the gun back at Keito as they left. All at once, they sprang into action again. The group followed behind Keito, moving as fast as possible. They were so close to getting away. Yuto stumbled a few times and Daiki kept coughing but they didn’t stop. They just moved through the hallways and staircases. Finally they reached the gate and Keito immediately began undoing the complicated lock.

When the gate was open at last, Yabu almost wanted to pause and take in the sight. It was very early in the morning by this point. The sun hadn’t even risen yet. But the open land in front of him looked like the most beautiful sight in the world. He couldn’t stop running though. A few guards had returned from checking out the disturbance and had noticed their escape.

Keito paused at the gate for a few seconds, looking between the approaching guards and the escaping group. “I’m coming with you guys,” he called out and sprinted after them, bringing up the rear.

Yabu pushed his legs as hard as he could, much more than he even thought was possible. But escape was the only thing on his mind. When it looked like Hikaru was lagging behind, Yabu grabbed his arm and pulled him forward.

“Where are we running?” Takaki shouted, struggling to get enough air to get the words out.

“Follow me,” Yabu said and sprinted to the front of the group. He knew of a taxi-truck stop nearby. He had taken one of the taxi-trucks during his journey to Paradiso. It was the only really reliable way to travel long distances.

Two guards who had spotted them were chasing behind with their guns up. Keito stopped and raised his own gun. A quick shot and Keito hit his mark. The guard cried out in pain as the bullet ripped through his hand, forcing him to drop his weapon. Keito swung quickly to the other one and put a bullet in his kneecap. Then he turned and ran to catch up with the group.

“No turning back now, then,” Yuto said. He somehow managed to sound awed by Keito’s marksmanship even though he was out of breath.

“How long will they follow us?” Inoo asked. He was just dragging Daiki along at this point. Hikaru reached out and pulled Daiki along as well, even though Daiki looked like he didn’t want the help.

“Shouldn’t be much longer,” Chinen said. “I left them a surprise in the computer system that should give them bigger things to worry about than us.”

“It’s not much farther,” Yabu gasped for air. He glanced back, and true to Chinen’s word, the other guards had fallen back. This was his last glimpse of the giant domed city, growing smaller and smaller as they ran away. He had been wrong to put all his hopes and dreams into one place. He knew now, it wasn’t about where he was but who he was with. The people he surrounded himself with gave him hope, and he could take that with him anywhere.

The taxi-truck stop was in sight now and they pushed their hardest to make it the last few steps. Everyone collapsed to the ground with relief when they stopped. Yabu dug his fingers deep into the dirt, enjoying how the feeling was so much different than hard concrete. Over to his left, Daiki succumbed to a nasty coughing fit as he struggled to breathe. Breathing heavily himself, Inoo wrapped his arms around him, rubbing his back and just trying to support him since there wasn’t much else he could do. He whispered words of comfort in his ear.

The adrenaline rush had crashed and no one quite knew what to do next. Hikaru was sitting on the ground massaging his knee which had started to swell and Yuto looked like he couldn’t put weight on his injured ankle anymore at all. Yamada had stretched his whole self out on the ground. Behind them, Chinen gave Keito a friendly pat on the shoulder.

“We’re out,” Yamada said. “We got away.” He sounded like he couldn’t believe it.

“Now we wait,” Yabu said, taking a seat on the bench. The next taxi-truck would be coming by soon and, by then, they would have regained their composure.

Takaki pulled his bag off of his shoulder and opened it. He pulled his tiny little fern out to check on it. Despite the crazy way they had escaped the city, the plant had made it out unharmed as well, looking just as nice as it had before he shoved it into the bag. The sound of Takaki’s laughter filled the air before the wind swept them away. He was just so stunned that the fern wasn’t hurt that he couldn’t stop laughing.

“Such an amazingly lucky little fern,” Yabu said and joined in with his own laughter. He couldn’t believe it either.

“What happened to only packing the essentials, you asshole,” Inoo said, breaking down into breathless giggles too. He buried his face in Daiki’s shoulder as he continued to laugh.

“This was essential,” Takaki answered. He smiled the brightest any of them had ever seen.

“You’re all crazy,” Keito said, both confused and amused at the situation.

“You’ll get used to it,” Yuto grinned at their newest companion.

Hikaru didn’t add anything to the conversation as the realization that they had made it began to set in. Instead he stared upwards. “I had forgotten what the sky looked like,” he murmured.

All of their faces turned up towards the sky now that they had time to take it all in. The sun was just beginning to rise. Yabu watched as the dark colors lightened up and blended together. Blues, pinks, oranges. It was constantly changing, melding together like a painting only halfway finished. If he blinked, he would miss some of it. It had only been a few months but he realized that he had missed this sight, had missed the feeling of the wind on his face, had missed the feeling of the sun against his skin.

They were out of the darkness of The Jungle, away from the twisted vine-like roads and the animals that constantly fought against each other. They were like Takaki’s little plant, able to put down roots anywhere now.

Yabu could see the taxi-truck approaching from a distance, a trail of dust kicking up in its wake. He leaned back on the bench and stretched his arms up towards the sky, reveling in the fact that he couldn’t touch it, no matter how high he climbed.