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Earthtones

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"You're not getting your security deposit back," the landlord said, his eyes drifting over Dareth's apartment. He lingered for a moment on the underwear hanging off the TV, then pulled his gaze away and sighed.

Dareth let out a nervous chuckle. "Ah heh… listen, I know my rent's been spotty, but I swear, I'll get my act together."

"You might," said his landlord, "but this is your last chance. I've been nice enough not to charge you late fees, but I want last month and this month's rent by the end of the week, capeesh?"

"Oh, sure," Dareth said, his mind racing. He spent most of his last paycheck on groceries and a new trophy, but he could probably put something together for this month's rent, at least. "Not a problem. That's gonna be…"

"That's two thousand dollars by Friday, if we're combining your water bill with it." The landlord fixed him with a glare. "At this point, it might be cheaper for me to evict you and be done with it, but I'm giving you one more chance. That's it, Brown. One more chance."

Dareth managed a shaky grin. "Don't worry, pal, I won't let you down."

"Sure you won't." The landlord sucked air through his teeth. "Sure you won't. See you, Brown."

Once his landlord was gone, Dareth took a few moments to sit down, pour himself a beer, and mess with his BorgWatch while trying to come up with a plan. He could probably pick up another shift at the bar, but that wouldn't pay him in time. Maybe he could do a few gigs? Help someone move boxes, that sort of thing.

"Man," he said out loud. "Two thousand dollars! That's ridiculous!"

Complaining about it didn't help. He finished the beer and considered another one, but decided against it. He wanted a clear head, at least for the moment. Hey, worst come to worst, he could stay with the ninja, right? Surely they owed him one, after the times he saved their butts.

He shrugged. "Eh, I'll figure something out. I always do. Ninja never quit, am I right?"

Dareth grinned at his reflection in one of the trophies. Tomorrow, he'd check online for any paying gigs, but tonight, he'd take it easy. Maybe he'd go to the bar, get some real drinks. Yeah, that sounded good. He stood up, pulled his jacket on, and headed out the door.


He had heard about the Sons of Garmadon. In the months the ninja had been searching for their missing sensei, the gang had appeared throughout Ninjago City, terrorizing the citizens. Dareth hadn't encountered them so far, so he wasn't too worried about going to the bar, alone, at night. What, was someone going to jump him? Probably not.

Even so, he stayed to the well-lit streets. No sense putting himself in danger.

He spotted Borg Tower, fairly close by. Huh, Dareth thought, his path did put him right by it. Maybe he'll stop in the lobby, browse the gift shop. Can't buy anything, not with needing to save up two thousand by Friday, but there was no harm in window-shopping.

Of course, the lobby was closed by the time he got there. "Aw, c'mon!" he said out loud, tugging at the doors. "I guess they close early on Sundays. What a shame!"

He checked the map on his phone. The fastest route to the bar would take him around the tower, so he shrugged and started walking again, rounding the corner of the building.

A dark shape passed overhead.

Dareth looked up. "Huh?" he said.

The streetlight had gone out, and it was a new moon tonight. Even so, there was the silhouette of a head against the starry sky, looking down. Dareth took out his phone and shined the flashlight at them, but the person retreated further back on the rooftop before he could get a good look.

"Who's there?" Dareth demanded. "I gotta warn you, if you're thinking of messing with the Brown Ninja –"

"Shut up!" a voice hissed, and a hand clamped over his mouth.

Dareth yelped, the sound muffled almost to nothing. Despite his struggles, his assailant had a hard grip on him, and he couldn't break himself free.

A quiet thump sounded next to them. "Damn it, Missy! We were supposed to be stealthy!"

"Quiet!" The person holding him shifted her grip, her nails digging into Dareth's face. "We won't be stealthy at all if this guy calls the cops on us!"

"So what the hell do you suggest we do?"

Dareth's protests were muffled as his phone was taken from him. "Find something to gag him with," Missy growled. "And quick! He's getting spit all over my hand."

"Gross!"

"Shut up and start looking!"

He had to do something. Dareth stomped on Missy's foot and she yelped, but didn't let go. He did it again, timing the stomp with licking her hand, and managed to use her moment of disorientation to break free and tumble on the ground. "A-ha!" he exclaimed, rolling onto his back. "There's no holding down the Brown Ninj – ack!"

Missy kicked him in the gut. "Stop playing games," she said while he doubled over in pain. "The ninja aren't here to save you! And even if they were, why would they care about you?"

Normally, he had some sort of witty comeback for people like this, but Missy had kicked really hard, and Dareth couldn't get a word out. By the time he recovered, the two gang members were glaring down at him, and boy did they look intimidating.

Dareth knew when he had lost a fight, sometimes before it even began. "Hey, buddies," he said, putting his hands behind his back. "I don't suppose we can work things out?"

Missy snorted. "All we need is for you to keep your mouth shut," she said. "I don't think that'll be a problem."

"Uh-huh," Dareth said, one hand on his BorgWatch, pressing buttons at random. One of these had to be the police, right? "I'll just be on my way, and –"

A loud ringing sounded from his watch. Both Dareth and the gang members were frozen at the sound, up until it stopped and a voice picked up. "Dareth, I told you not to call this number –"

"Dammit!" Missy shouted. She grabbed Dareth by his collar and pulled him off the ground. "What the hell did I just say?!"

Dareth squeaked. "Hey, hey," he squeaked. "It was an accident! I must've butt-dialed! I, uh – hey, Pix, if you could send some help over here –"

Missy swung him hard, his head cracked against the wall, and everything went black.


When he came to, he was still in the alley, looking up at a pair of glowing green eyes. Someone was repeating his name. "Dareth. Dareth, can you hear me? Dareth?"

He tried to speak, but only groaned. It felt like someone had driven a nail into his skull. Pixal shifted her grip on him, which made the pain flare up, and he tried to feel the back of his head. "Don't move," Pixal said. "You have a head injury. I need you to stay awake for me, Dareth."

"Sure thing, Pix," he managed to say. "Can y' get… uh…"

He trailed off. Staying awake seemed a much more onerous task than it was a few seconds ago. His eyelids started to droop.

Pixal picked him up. "Stay awake," she said. "Talk to me. Why were you at Borg Tower tonight?"

"Just, uh…" His vision was blurry. "Wanted to see the… the…"

She started walking. Dareth grimaced in pain. "Keep talking," Pixal said. "I'm not angry at you. You prevented the Sons of Garmadon from kidnapping my father. I am very grateful for that."

"Really?" Dareth said. "That's… good…"

"I've called an ambulance. Stay with me. What's your favorite color?"

"Uh…" He had to take a moment to think about it. "Brown, obviously."

"What's your favorite food?"

"Puffy… pot stickers?"

Pixal asked him question after question, forcing him to stay awake to answer. Soon enough, sirens pierced his ears. He could barely think through the noise, and he only realized Pixal wasn't there anymore once he was loaded in the ambulance. He tried to ask the people around him where she was, but they didn't understand.

Eventually, he blacked out.


Dareth didn't know how he was going to pay the hospital bill. Two overnights? That was going to be expensive. The collections department said they would mail the final bill to him, so he had a few more days before he had to think about paying it. He said goodbye to the nurse and walked outside, wondering if he should call a taxi or not.

"Dareth?"

He looked up to see a woman he didn't recognize staring at him. "That is you, right?" she said.

"Uh, yeah, that's me." He flashed a smile at her. "Is there a situation? Do you need my help?"

She shook her head and walked over. "I'm Cyrus Borg's secretary, Becky," she said, shaking his hand. "Dr. Borg would like to thank you personally for stopping the Sons of Garmadon's kidnapping plot."

"I did that?" Dareth said. "Oh, yeah, I did that! Well, if it's Borg asking, how can I refuse? I'm a huge fan, after all."

Becky smiled. "I'm sure he'll be glad to hear that," she said. "If you could follow me…"

The car was self-driving, to Dareth's surprise. Becky explained it to him as it set off down the busy streets. "I believe the AI driving it is based off an earlier version of Pixal's model," she said. "Unlike Pixal, this one is more specialized, and doesn't have the same cognitive abilities as Pixal herself. Still very intelligent, of course – Dr. Borg really is a genius."

"Sure is," Dareth said with a grin. "I gotta say, I love the BorgWatch. Went to the midnight reveal and everything!"

Becky's smile faltered. "Right. Try to avoid mentioning that night to Dr. Borg. He doesn't have the fondest memories of it."

Dareth winced. "Ah ha ha, that's right. Don't worry, I'll watch my mouth."

They pulled into Borg Tower's underground parking garage and stopped right by the elevators. Dareth couldn't help but think the concrete walls and floor didn't look too impressive, but hey, it was just a garage. Not every part of Borg Tower would be a technological marvel. He and Becky entered the elevator and ascended.

"You're a friend of the ninja, right?" Becky said.

"Yep!" Dareth said proudly. "Haven't been in contact with them recently, but, eh, they're not up to much these days."

"Looking for their missing teacher, right? Dr. Borg has been funding part of their search. Now that Pixal has officially joined the ninja as Samurai X, he feels it's his responsibility as her father."

"Right, right."

It was a long ride to the hundredth floor. Dareth shifted from side to side and wondered why Cyrus Borg would want to meet him, of all people. Obviously it was totally fantastic, but the man had never been much interested in ninja business before Pixal joined. He didn't have any involvement when Dareth was the ninja's manager, despite the requests for sponsorship that Dareth was pretty certain never reached him.

Finally, they arrived. The door chimed and Becky exited, Dareth trailing behind.

"Oh!" Cyrus beamed at them from his desk. "Dareth, right? Come in, come in! Take a seat!"

Dareth grinned back and took the chair offered to him. "Thanks, Becky," he said. "And thank you for inviting me, Mr. Borg."

"It's Doctor, actually. But you can call me Cyrus."

Becky hovered by the side of the desk. "There's unfinished work in my office," she said. "Permission to leave?"

Cyrus nodded. "Permission granted – you know you don't have to ask! Go on then. Shoo!"

He waved a hand at her. Becky snorted and walked out. Dareth watched her go, then turned his attention to Cyrus Borg himself. "So," he said, "you wanted to, uh, thank me?"

"Yes, indeed." Cyrus' smile disappeared for a moment. "Because of your call, Pixal was able to alert us to a breach in tower security, and the guards found and arrested several Sons of Garmadon who were… approaching my quarters. We still don't know how they did it – they must have had an intimate knowledge of our systems…"

He trailed off, tapping his right hand on the table with an odd, metallic sound. Dareth waited a moment for him to continue, then spoke when he didn't.

"Heh, it was nothing," he said. "I was just in the area, y'know? I'm glad I could help out."

Cyrus blinked. "Right! And help out you did! I'm very, very grateful. Is there anything I can do for you?"

"Huh?"

Cyrus beamed at him. "Since you helped me in a tremendous way, I'd like to help you in return. I could give you… hm, the latest model of the BorgWatch? Something else?"

Dareth chuckled. "Well, if you're offering…"

His phone buzzed. He pulled it out and read the text. "Three day sleft," he said to himself. "That's… huh."

"Sorry, is something wrong?"

"It's my landlord," Dareth said. "He's been on my case the past few days. Told me I had to pay him two thousand by Friday. Like I have that kind of money…"

Cyrus frowned. "Two thousand by Friday?" he repeated.

"Uh huh."

"That's in dollars?"

"Uh huh."

"And what happens if you don't pay it?"

Dareth shrugged. "He says he'll evict me, but I've always managed to work something out."

"My course of action seems obvious, then. Here."

Cyrus wrote something in a little book, tore the page out, and slid it across the desk. Dareth picked it up and his eyes widened. "Holy smokes!"

"Dareth," Cyrus said, "you may have saved my life, for all I know. This is the least I can do. This should pay your rent for this month and the next, right?"

Five thousand dollars would pay for more than that. Dareth stared at the check with his mouth open.

"Are you alright?"

"Yeah," Dareth said. "After this? I sure am! Thank you, Mister – I mean, Dr. Borg!"

He smiled. "I told you, you can call me Cyrus. Now, hurry off to the bank – it might take a day for the check to go through, and you need that money by tomorrow, don't you?"

"Right!" Dareth jumped out of his seat, nearly knocking the chair over. "Oh, whoops –"

Cyrus laughed and pushed himself backwards. "I'll call another car for you," he said, moving his wheelchair around the desk and starting off towards the elevator. "Don't want anything to happen to you before you get there, right?"

"Definitely not." Dareth followed Cyrus and got in the elevator with him. "Are you, uh, coming with?"

"Oh, no," Cyrus said immediately. "I rarely leave the tower nowadays."

He fell silent, and they rode the elevator without exchanging a word. Dareth kept wondering if he should say something, but he was still reeling from getting a check for five thousand dollars. He knew that for Cyrus Borg, who had billions, it was nothing – but this amount of money could change Dareth's life.

Cyrus spoke to the man at the garage and showed Dareth to the car. "I'll see you again, sometime!" Cyrus said brightly while Dareth got in. "Good luck with your landlord!"

"You too," Dareth said without thinking. Cyrus laughed and waved him off.


The bank almost didn't believe him when he tried to deposit the check; the man Cyrus sent with him had to step in and explain. "You saved Cyrus Borg?" the teller said incredulously, his eyes scanning Dareth from head to toe.

"Sure did!" Dareth said. "Got a lump on my head for it, too. I gotta say, I like the money a little better, heh."

"Huh," said the teller. "I guess there's no problem with this, then."

Dareth thanked the man profusely before he left. "I was just doing what Dr. Borg said to do," the man said with a shrug. "Now that the money's deposited safely, are you okay walking home?"

"Oh yeah, sure. Thanks again."

He waved at the car as it drove off, then headed back to his apartment. Thankfully, no one tried to jump him on the way home, despite numerous movements out of the corner of his eye making him jump and land in a fighting stance, facing nothing but a shadow.

His landlord was waiting outside his apartment door.

"Huh," Dareth said. His head started throbbing; maybe he hadn't recovered as well from the concussion as he thought. "What's going on?"

"Your money's due, Brown," his landlord said. "You got it?"

Dareth's face slowly broke into a grin. "Actually," he said, "I do. Give me a minute, I gotta get to my computer to pay it."

His landlord raised an eyebrow, but let him into his apartment. Dareth wasted no time in logging on to the tenant's portal and putting the payment through, all two thousand dollars of it. When he presented the receipt to his landlord, the other man only shrugged, said, "Good enough for now, Brown," and left.

That night, Dareth had the first good night's sleep he had in a long, long time.