A Time for Heroes

by Lightning Bird

Disclaimer: These characters belong to Cartoon Network, not me. I'm just borrowing them and I promise to put them back where I found them when I'm done playing. This story will probably be updated at a slower pace than the other ones I've written simply because I'm s'darned busy at the moment. Enjoy!

Chapter One: Open Mouth, Insert Foot

He had to hand it to Mandy – she knew how to pull off a rally. As he wove through the crush of volunteers and Kids Next Door operatives, Ben Tennyson could feel the excitement pulsing through the night. The huge square in front of the DexLabs headquarters was jam-packed, and the overflow of would-be soldiers filled the streets and spilled onto the grounds of the other businesses lining the boulevard. The mood was electric.

Earth had been attacked and invaded by the forward scouts of a barely-known enemy and they faced annihilation by something that called itself Fuse. The response by the various governments had been unbalanced to say the least. Until the Plumbers had stepped up to the plate and called for a new sort of army to form, the different militaries had been ineffective against the Monsters thrown at them by the invaders.

A new type of army was needed against this new type of enemy. Fuse's forces were unlike anything ever seen, strange beings made of stuff called Fusion Matter and anything else that happened to be on hand, from cars to bones to mail boxes to trees to paper clips. Conventional weapons did little against the hybrid monstrosities, and strict military discipline was almost useless on the new battlefields cropping up unexpectedly around the world. What was needed was daring, skill, recklessness, and the weapon technology the Plumbers had so carefully nurtured over the past few years.

An army they had – an army of children and other beings that answered the call for action. Many were KND, some were talking animals and odd beings that weren't easily classified, with just a smattering of adults able to handle facing the nightmarish Fusion Monsters. All were volunteers. Some were good, some were evil, some were neither or both. This invasion was bigger than all of them, and many old grudges had been set aside to face this common foe.

Being the grandson of a Plumber, Ben had been among the first to volunteer. Without bragging, he was among the elite fighters of Earth. The custodian of the Omnitrix, he possessed the capability to change into any of a number of aliens, all with exceptional fighting skills and abilities, and over the years he had developed into the sort of leader that Mandy desperately needed. He joined a select group that included his cousin Gwen, Kevin Levine, Samurai Jack, the Powerpuff Girls, the KND, Juniper Lee, Mandy, the Grim Reaper, and others as the commanders of this war.

He had not yet gotten the full story why, but DexLabs, part of the corporate colossus that was DexCorp International, had been chosen for the headquarters for the war effort. It was an impressive structure, towering high above Downtown with a campus that covered acres of real estate. DexCorp had burst on the scene less than three years prior and had taken the world by storm. The weapons, aeroships, armor, robots, and countless innovations and inventions had revolutionized medicine, combat, law enforcement, transportation, and communications. Almost overnight the corporation had grown into a manufacturing and technological giant, and the demand for their products continued to multiply.

If the rumors were true, the whole company was owned lock, stock, and barrel by just one person. And if rumor served, that one person was a recluse that guarded his privacy so completely he had not been seen in public for years.

Or maybe he had and people just didn't know what he looked like, mused Ben. He could not imagine hiding away from the world for long. Certainly not for years on end. He knew he would go crazy without getting out and socializing.

He was late. Picking up his pace, he knew he would be on the receiving end of that patented angry frown from Mandy when he finally reached the building. He wasn't too concerned. Mandy always frowned and it wasn't as if he had to give a speech or anything.

A huge plasma screen had been set up on the side of the DexLab building above an elevated patio to allow everyone in the crowd to see and hear the speeches and instructions. Ben glanced up to see the Mayor of Townsville – an enthusiastic if a little dense man that wore a top hat and monocle and reminded Ben of Mr. Moneybags from Monopoly – give his address. He was rambling and waving his arms and looked as if he was having a great deal of fun until Ben realized he was swatting at a bug.

He reached the building and his ID got him through the doors and directed to an elevator to the mezzanine level. DexLab HQ was impressive even by his teenage standards – all was cool, sleek, and modern. The entrance opened around an atrium where plants flourished and light poured in through the many windows. It was very crowded with KND agents and operatives as they quickly and desperately brought order to chaos and launched a war for the planet's survival.

At the elevator he had to show his ID again before he was allowed in. Four stories up and it was considerably less crowded as he made his way to the staging ground for the speakers. He recognized quite a few people now, though he hadn't met them all personally. He waved to Juniper Lee and Samurai Jack and took a moment to just out-and-out gape to see the Powerpuff Girls. They were prettier and more petite than he had expected, but he knew not to underestimate them. They were powerhouses, and as the planet's only ultra-super heroes, they would be at the forefront of this war. He made a mental note not to tick any of them off in any way, but to make every effort to get on their good side.

They were hovering in the air beside two people in white coats – an older man with dark hair and a short, redheaded kid. They all seemed on familiar terms because the three girls leaned close to the boy before he stepped away from the group – kissing his cheeks, perhaps? The dark-haired man said something that brought a quick smile to the boy's face as he left them. He turned around, walking backwards as he addressed a few last words at them, and the trio of girls waved one last time.

"You're late."

Ben looked down to find the source of the growl. "Hi, Mandy! Good to see you, too."

The newly appointed commander of Earth's Combined Forces folded her arms across her chest and glared. Tiny, blonde, as vicious as a wolverine with rabies, Ben briefly wondered how she had gotten this position. He wouldn't put assassination beyond her. To say Mandy was ambitious was a gross understatement, but even Ben had to admit that she was eminently qualified to lead a war. Not even the KND had protested when she was put in charge. When Ben first heard of her, he was skeptical, but upon meeting her he knew that she would do anything and everything it took to win. So far as he could tell there was not a shred of compassion in her, making her well matched against Fuse. She was the right man for the job and was not in the least afraid to let everyone know it, nor was she afraid to strong-arm the hesitant or dissenters.

Beside Mandy was her only admitted friend in the world who also doubled as her serf, slave, jester, and on occasion lab rat, a kid named Billy. The boy laughed crazily and seemed to be chasing his tail, spinning in endless circles without getting dizzy. Ben wouldn't have been the least surprised if Billy actually had a tail.

"You're late."

"I'm not giving a speech!" he defended.

"Good thing. I don't know how much more of this I can take. Billy, get me some ice water. Now!"

The idiot dashed off happily.

"What's the mood out there like?"

"Excited. They're glad to be able to do something, I think."

Billy ran up with a large cup of ice water. Mandy took it and promptly dumped it right over his head. She handed the cup back, ordering,

"Calm down. Now go get me something to drink."

He ran off again.

"Did you give your speech?"

"Yeah."

"Sorry I missed it." He dodged as Billy returned with a glass of juice for Mandy before darting away again.

She gave him a look most sour, not fooled for a moment. "No, you're not."

"Okay, I'm not. Who's left?"

"Number Five, then Dexter will wrap things up."

"Dexter? As in DexCorp fame?" He waved at the complex surrounding them.

"The same." She glanced over as Billy started a commotion by the refreshments. With a grumble and sigh Mandy set out to save the food and drink from his grubby paws. "I'll see you later!" she called. "The meeting is right after the rally! Don't be late again, Tennyson!"

Happy to escape her for a while, Ben moved to where he could better see the Mayor as he brought his speech to a conclusion. The mezzanine was a few steps below the level of the outdoor patio, but before he could climb the steps a voice said,

"You don't want to go up there right now. You'll be on screen if you do."

He turned, surprised to hear a Russian accent, and he saw the redheaded boy that had been talking to the Powerpuff Girls before. He was young – probably not even in his teens – and wore glasses and a long lab coat with a high collar. He seemed bent on fulfilling every nerdy mad scientist stereotype in the book. Ben looked at him with interest, intrigued by the accent and the sheer pallor of his skin. Access to the mezzanine was restricted to the command team and DexLabs employees. Since Ben couldn't imagine anyone so runty and unhealthy-looking in the thick of battle, he assumed junior was some sort of hanger-on or kid brother to one of the KND.

"Do you work here?" he wondered.

The question seemed to surprise and amuse the boy. He turned to face Ben. "I do," he said.

Assuming he was in charge of access control, Ben moved off the steps, not too keen on giving anyone grief and not so interested in the Mayor's ranting that he couldn't miss the climax. Moments later a loud cheer rose up and the Mayor, still gushing, was escorted from the patio by a tall, shapely, ginger-headed Amazon in a red suit. Ben watched her go, too mesmerized by the shades of red to notice her face.

The Russian stiffly gestured for the next speaker to go up the steps and a tall black girl in an oversized cap gave him a smile as she passed. Judging by the cheer that went up Number Five was well liked and a welcome sight. Ben watched her go, wondering what it felt like to be faced by such a crush of humanity. He was glad he wasn't going to find out. Speeches – either on the giving or receiving end – were not his thing. For want of something better to do, he struck up a conversation with the scrawny kid beside him.

"So what do you do?" wondered Ben.

"I invent things for DexLabs," was the easy reply.

"You? Really? How long have you worked here?"

From behind thick glasses, a red eyebrow was arched at him. "Since the company started."

Ben turned his attention to the screen, sharply angled from where he stood, watching Number Five more than listening. "I hear the egghead that started this place is a total recluse."

"Not total," said the Russian coolly. He started to clasp his hands behind his back then hesitated, grimacing, and had to be content with crossing his arms. He tried to hide the reaction, closing his eyes briefly as he drew a shuddering breath and said, "He just chooses his companions with great care. With so much money, people generally seek something besides friendship from him. It can be difficult to tell what people really want."

"I guess. Dexter," he muttered, and the boy looked at him sharply, turning not his head but his whole body to gaze keenly at Ben. "Dexter. What the heck kind of a name is Dexter? Besides hyper geeky?" He did not even try to keep the derision out of his voice.

"Latin, I believe. It means right-handed or skillful, hence the words dexterous and dexterity." He gestured with one purple-gloved hand.

"Oh. I guess it suits then, in some weird, scientific way."

The boy tilted his head, amused anew. "I suppose."

"It's still geeky."

"I suppose."

"Guess you can't get much worse than having to answer to Dexter. Poindexter, maybe, or Bartholomew."

He released his breath in a small laugh. "I'll take your word for it."

"Makes my name sound normal. So what's with the gloves? You cold?"

"I need them for inventing things. What do you do?"

He ran a hand through his hair, wondering if he'd freak the kid out with the truth, then figured baby Einstein would be able to handle at least a watered-down version of things. "It's kinda hard to explain. I, uh, turn into alien beings and, uh, fight other aliens. Earth's prime real estate, pal, and this is not the first invasion we've faced."

"I know. You must be Max Tennyson's grandson, Benjamin, keeper of the Omnitrix."

"Call me Ben, please," he hastened to beg and quickly moved on. "But, yeah. You know my grandfather?"

"We've met." He cast Ben a sideways glance, and behind his tinted glasses his eyes were bright with secrets shared. "The Plumbers are largely responsible for the establishment of DexLabs and DexCorp. Even before Dexter patented the null-void laser, the Plumbers recognized its potential. They pushed it through all channels to get it into production."

"Cool! I never knew that!"

"Not many people do."

A cheer rose up as Number Five hit a resounding note with her audience. She called a loud farewell that was picked up and echoed through the night.

"She speaks well," said the redhead.

"Yeah. One more round of torture down, one to go. Nothing worse than having to sit through speeches."

"Oh, I can think of worse things," said the boy, his lilting accent making light of the subject.

Ben grinned. "Like what?"

The smile was returned and he pushed his glasses back into place. "Having to give them."

His movements stiff and almost strained, he held tightly to the railing as he walked up the stairs, passing Number Five as she came bounding down on her long legs. Ben stared, and then motioned the KND to stop. She paused expectantly, excited and happy.

"Who is that kid?" asked Ben, pointing.

Number Five broke into a broad grin, glancing behind her at the boy in the white lab coat that appeared on the screen. "That's Dexter."

"WHAT?" Ben stared, horrified with himself. He slapped a hand to his forehead. "I just called him an egghead and said his name was geeky!"

She planted her hands on her hips and shook her head in disgust. "Nice going, Tennyson. He's just financing this war for us and supplying our weapons!"

His other palm was stopped by his forehead as well. He barely felt the pain. "I didn't know! Honest!"

The KND operative muttered under her breath at him. "Well if you'd been here on time, you would have met him before the rally and not given yourself foot in mouth disease. Now shush, Number Five wants to hear what he's got to say."

Together they watched the screen. A hush fell on the crowd as the warriors assembled realized who was about to address them. Only a handful of people assembled today had ever seen Dexter, fewer had met him, and only one had unintentionally slighted him.

He looked across the sea of humanity spread out before him, and Ben was struck at the intensity and intelligence in Dexter's gaze. Even if he was just a kid, he bore himself like someone that was used to being in charge. There was nothing to indicate that he wasn't perfectly at ease, recluse though he may be, and Ben suddenly had the inkling that this was not someone you wanted to mess with.

"I am not here to give you a long speech. You've had enough of those."

He started quietly, and the Russian accent gave his voice an odd authority. A ripple of amusement and relief moved through the crowd as he paused.

"I have only a few words to say to you all," he promised. Suddenly his features hardened and his voice became imperious. He pointed at the army spreading out before him, his voice filling the night.

"We have the tools! You have the talent! The time is now! The hero is you. Fight for what is yours!"

That was all, but that was enough. A mighty roar rose up into the night, so loud that it shook the air and staggered the people on the patio. Dexter gazed outwards a few moments, then turned away, back to the shelter of the mezzanine. The shout went on and on, getting louder and wilder as the forces committed to defend the Earth rose to the challenge presented. They would fight, all the way to the end.

Ben waited where he stood, feeling enthusiasm fill the air like an electrical charge, feeling the roar of voices rise like a tidal wave, feeling like a total and complete idiot. He needed to apologize repeatedly for being rude and a jerk, but the owner of DexCorp did not return this way. Finally Ben mounted the steps and looked around, but of the redhead there was no sign. Dexter had gotten clean away.

"Great," he muttered, scuffing his sneakers on the pavers. Well. It looked as if the mountain would have to go to Mohammed. Then he remembered the Powerpuff Girls and how they had kissed Dexter before his speech.

He was doomed.