• Published 6th Feb 2014
  • 5,087 Views, 168 Comments

An Old-Fashioned Notion - Thereisnospoon303



The battle between Loki and the Avengers is altered by a twist of fate. Now stranded in the idyllic world of Equestria, "Earth's Mightiest Heroes" must find a way to unite alongside six colorful ponies to stop Loki's schemes.

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Not From Around Here

Chapter 3
Not From Around Here

From the treetops, Clint Barton watched the world.

The morning sun hovered just above the horizon line. Enough years in the wilderness had honed Barton’s senses—yet the placid ambiance of chirping birds proved unwelcome. Barton had been primed the decisive showdown with Loki; the growing calamity above the noisy streets of New York City had further motivated the assassin forced to live with the knowledge that he had killed his own comrades. Loki had made this personal, and Barton had been more than ready to repay him with an arrow through his eye socket.

Instead, inside a nearby tree hollow, a brown squirrel happily chattered away.

Barton carefully readjusted his footing, causing the branch he was perched upon to creak. He had been on watch for close to a half an hour without changing position. Staying in one area for too long was an invitation to get caught in a death trap. A marksman with Barton’s skills appreciated this fact. He had found, however, that the rest of the woodlands were too dense to traverse. Thorny vines, thick brush, and low hanging branches made for terrific obstacles.

The chirping birds hushed for a moment, like a breeze washing across the woodlands. With a practiced hand Barton reached back and carefully gripped the composite longbow mounted on his back. He heard grass crunching beneath footfalls. Their pace and intervals signified bipedalism. This observation brought longbow and arrow into Barton’s grasp.

Barton could not see the proximate path from his perch. The trees of this forest offered no gaps in the canopy, which meant the veteran assassin had to listen rather than watch. Barton kept an arrow notched but not drawn in his bow. Unless his target appeared directly beneath him or took a climb, a clear shot remained out of the cards.

“Agent Barton!”

Phil Coulson’s echoing voice evoked a haggard exhale from Barton. Sweat droplets had budded along his forehead. Barton hastily snapped his arrow back into its quiver and slung the bow over his shoulder.

“Agent Barton!” Coulson bellowed once more. “Agent Barton, I need you to report in!”

Barton gave a humored snort. “What seems to be the problem, sir?” he called out.

Coulson’s footsteps ceased, and then continued crunching across grass as he approached Barton’s position. Barton watched as Coulson stood at the base of the tree and looked up the stalk. Even under the shade of the leaves, Coulson placed a hand above his eyes.

“You’re not going to make me climb up there, are you?”

Barton drew in a breath. He lowered himself off of his perch and dropped onto another branch below. The whole of the tree rattled as he continued his descent. As he moved, a smaller branch snapped loose and fell, clattering at Coulson’s feet. Barton, taking a vine in hand, swiftly rappelled down along the thick stalk. Letting go of the vine, he landed on the ground with a soft thud.

Coulson stood by in quiet amusement as Barton rubbed some dirt and wood splinters off of his hands. “Impressive stuff. You’ve got to teach me how to do that sometime.”

“Sure thing,” Barton said, voice straining as he stretched his neck back and to the side. He took a moment to glance down the trail. Without a signal or command, he marched ahead. “We just need to get out of here first.”

Coulson, eyeing his own scuffed dress shoes, shook his head and walked after Barton. “You know, I’m really starting to regret not bringing spare boots.”

“I’d offer you mine, if I had an extra pair.”

"Thanks all the same, but I don’t think we’re the same size.”

“So where the hell are we, anyway?” Barton asked abruptly. He looked to the trees and lush foliage lining the path. “Did Loki hide his army in a nature reserve?”

“We’re not sure yet,” said Coulson. “Captain Rogers and Agent Romanoff were gathering supplies before I left. They think we might be here for a while.”

Barton smiled bitterly. “Oh yeah? Color me surprised.”

“The good news is”—Coulson grunted after a loose vine clipped his toe—“we have most of our equipment: earpieces, first aid kits, even a few spare canteens.” A moment passed during which the only sounds were Barton and Coulson’s footsteps pounding across the worn grass of the trail. Coulson then said, “It’s still a work in progress.”

“How about our comms?”

“Only the short-range ones are running. We tested them after you left. The earpieces are good out to about twenty miles.” Before Coulson said anything else, his nose wrinkled as he took a loud whiff of the air. “This forest smells like a high school locker room.”

“Or a barracks,” Barton said sardonically. “Maybe Loki really is keeping an army in here.”

An awkward quiet stifled their conversation. Inwardly, Coulson lamented his less than adequate attire for hiking. It did not help that Barton maintained his brisk pace, even when Coulson stopped because he thought the heel of his left shoe had come loose. The delay, however brief, forced him to scramble back into position behind Barton. At least the shoes had remained intact.

A half-smile crept up on Barton’s lips. “Come on, Coulson. You usually like working in the field.”

“I thought we were going to be running around in the concrete jungle of New York,” said Coulson, deflated, “and not, you know, an actual jungle.”

Leaves crunched and twigs snapped as the two pressed through a cluster of waist-high bushes. The sounds of fabric snagging and Coulson grunting caught Barton’s attention. When the pair at last emerged from the thicket, Coulson had slowed his pace to look down upon his tattered suit.

“Was that a custom fit?” Barton asked, at last peering over his shoulder.

Coulson flinched. “Got it at Hugo Boss. The shoes are Italian leather, if you’re curious.”

The comment earned a passing chuckle from Barton. His good-humored expression promptly snapped back to stern and alert. Barton and Coulson had reached the edge of the grassy path feeding into an open field encompassed by more trees, vines, and misshapen hedgerows. The way the morning light poured through the trees gave the field an almost enchanted quality.

And then there was the wreckage of the crashed plane.

Barton and Coulson slowed to a full stop where the path entered the meadow. The Quinjet rested ahead of them; mounds of upturned dirt covered its nose, giving it the appearance of a raven face-planted in a sandbox. Remnants of the wings dangled from its body in uneven pieces. Dying wisps of smoke slinked out from broken panels across the aircraft’s frame, and once sturdy heavy armor plates creaked under the gentlest breeze. The tail had somehow avoided total obliteration.

Lacking words, Coulson folded his arms. Normally the first person to call a spade a spade, he was unable to muster the wit for describing the scene. His best commentary could not squeeze past the knot in his throat. What was there to say? It was a mess, plain and simple, and yet somehow they managed to survive. Calling their survival miraculous struck Coulson as too appropriate—or perhaps it would be too trite. S.H.I.E.L.D. agents did not deal in miracles, and Agent Coulson refused to indulge in whimsy.

Even apart from entertaining whimsy, they should not have survived. Coulson’s gut told him that before his mind bothered to break it down into logical segments. If Clint Barton’s silence was any indication, he too recognized the ridiculousness of the ordeal. Anyone could have a run of dumb luck—but not when a military aircraft crash-lands with a raging nuclear physicist onboard.

Coulson swept away stray sweat droplets by rubbing his brow. Clearing his throat of the persistent knot, he said, “Nice work on the parking job. Did you pick that up from Tikrit?”

Barton remained motionless. “There were a lot fewer trees in Tikrit.”

“Right…”

Exhaling through his nostrils, Barton moved into the field. He and Coulson proceeded around the Quinjet’s port and to its rear, avoiding to step on debris littered across the meadow. The air carried with it the acrid scent of burnt plastics and metal. One of the flaps on the aircraft’s dislocated wing popped loose with a metallic clank.

As Barton and Coulson drew closer toward the tail of the aircraft, two metal carrying cases came into view, scratched but otherwise intact, sitting twenty yards from the edge of the trench burrowed around the Quinjet. A parachute pack sat up against the cases, its contents pooled on the ground in a sprawl of white cords and gray nylon. Standing to the right of the crates were Natasha Romanoff and Steve Rogers, the latter of whom had his cowl pulled back and patriotic shield leaning on his leg. They stood close together as Rogers, occupied in providing some instruction, pointed at the unfurled parachute settled several yards away from them.

Natasha titled to the side and looked past Rogers’ frame. Her eyebrow faintly rose as she sized up Barton and Coulson on their approach. “What took you so long?”

“He was up a tree,” Coulson stated matter-of-factly, halting at the edge of the parachute tarp.

Natasha pursed her lips in amusement. “Did he make you climb?”

“No—but we played some hide-and-seek until he felt like coming down.”

“Barton, did you get a better look at the area?” asked Rogers while hoisting his shield onto his forearm.

“Not much. Wherever we are, the canopy’s pretty expansive. You can’t see a damn thing.” Barton wandered over to the stacked cases as he spoke, diverting his gaze to their arrangement amidst the open parachute. The fabric rustled underneath his boots. “Already gearing up for a hike, Captain?”

“As far as I’m concerned, we need to get moving. Standing pat doesn’t get us any closer to finding a way out of here.” Rogers gestured toward the metal cases. “We’ve got a few basic supplies. The parachute can be used if we need to make shelter. Other than that, we’re running thin.”

“We weren’t exactly planning on a long trip,” said Natasha.

“I get staying on the move, Captain,” Barton began, his arms folded, “but we don’t have a destination. We don’t even know where we are. Hell, we could be anywhere on the planet.”

“Assuming we’re still on the same planet,” Coulson added as he glanced between Barton and Rogers. “Loki clearly didn’t have a handle on things when we last saw him. The Tesseract could’ve launched us into some other world.”

Natasha placed her hands on her hips. “Wherever we are, Barton does have a point, Captain Rogers. What's our next move?”

Rogers lifted his head as his lower jaw tightened. His eyes scanned over the forest surrounding the meadow. “We continue gathering supplies and tools for survival. We need to be prepared for the possibility of being out here for a while.” Lowering his glance, he looked at the team. “Then we go and find Banner.”

Barton, Coulson, and Natasha’s stoic expressions evaporated. Natasha’s eyes darted from side to side. Unconsciously her hands slowly reached for the two holstered pistols attached at her thighs. The Black Widow readied her venom at the mere mention of Banner’s name—but even if she had a target, her fingers quivered too fiercely to be of much use.

Coulson wore a grim frown as he hunched his shoulders. He glanced to his left, staring into Quinjet’s broken open rear hatch. The dirt mounds that enveloped the hull made the aircraft’s interior like a cave; layers of twisted cables dangled from the walls and the ceiling. Beyond the wired curtains Coulson saw a bulb of unbolted metal where a seat should have existed. It was a lasting sign of the Hulk’s departure.

Coulson licked his dry lips, again struggling with that knot in his throat. One good hit from the Hulk would have made him a permanent part of the Quinjet’s wall-to-wall renovations. It was no wonder, Coulson observed, why Natasha looked like a recruit with a loaded gun pointed in her face.

Rogers sucked in a sharp breath, well aware of the cold reception. “Listen, I know it’s not ideal—”

“You want us to track down Banner,” Natasha interrupted. She gave a slow blink. “Again.”

“Since the Cube was responsible for transporting us here, Banner’s the only one who might know how to get us back to New York. The other bet is Stark…” Pain flickered across Rogers’ face. “Would have been.”

“Captain Rogers,” Barton said, stepping away from the supply cases and the tarp, “even if that’s the case, you and I both know we’re not equipped to go after Banner. We’ve barely got enough supplies as it is.” He walked until he stood toe-to-toe with the taller super soldier. “All things considered, I think we’re better off leaving him alone.”

Rogers shook his head. “We can’t leave him out here. By now his… transformation should have worn off. He’s defenseless.”

“Trust me, Captain,” said Natasha as she moved up alongside Rogers. “Banner is far from defenseless.”

“We’re not leaving anyone behind,” Rogers said sharply. His chest and shoulders broadened in spite of the fact that he stood flanked by two world-class assassins. “We got Dr. Banner into this mess; now it’s our job to get him out. There’s no walking away from that.”

Natasha raised her chin as the look around her eyes tightened. “And what if he says no?”

Rogers slowly shifted to face Natasha. He countered her glare with one of his own. “Either we leave here as a team, or we’re not getting out of here at all.”

“Does anyone else smell that?”

The trio of soldiers turned and stared at Phil Coulson with a mixture of confusion and annoyance, as if he had walked into a party uninvited. Rather than placate their befuddlement, he held up a finger and jutted it upward for emphasis.

“Seriously.” Coulson brought his other hand over his nose. “Something reeks.”

Rogers, Barton, and Natasha tentatively lifted their noses and quietly sniffed the air. Scents associated with the wrecked Quinjet were the most obvious; due to familiarity, vehicle oil, rubber, and plastic lacked their once pungent stench. None of those smells stood out as odd.

Then Natasha choked out a cough. She drew a hand over her mouth and nose in a desperate attempt to rid herself of a new and powerful odor flooding into her throat. Water built up in her eyes as she bent over and hacked out some spittle. The awful smell packed the punch of surprise, mixing in with the aroma of melted rubber.

“Good God!” Rogers exclaimed in disgust, shaking his head, that same stench having now hit him.

“Nat!” Barton leaned over and placed a hand on Natasha’s back. “You okay?”

Panting heavily, she glanced up at Barton and offered a weak smile. “I’m good. I just… just wasn’t expecting it.”

Barton’s face wrinkled in a combination of a smirk and revulsion. “Yeah, it’s pretty bad.”

“What on earth is that smell?” asked Rogers. “It can’t be from the crash. If it were, we would’ve caught it earlier.”

“Coulson and I picked up a smell like this one back in the forest,” said Barton as he helped Natasha stand upright. He rapidly rubbed his nose with the back of his fist and snorted. “Thought it was a dead animal.”

“Definitely smells like something died,” Coulson remarked in a muffled voice, hand still pressed against his nose.

A doglike howl echoed out from the wilderness. The sound blanketed the meadow from all directions. Barton and Natasha promptly stepped away from one another, their footfalls quiet on the loose dirt. Natasha unclasped her pistols from their holsters with a click; Barton brought his longbow into his hands. With his thumb he snapped the metal switch of the laser aiming device mounted on the bow’s grip. A red dot instantly appeared at his feet.

Yet another yowl shook the air—this time closer, practically right on top of the team. Coulson had his pistol drawn but lowered toward the ground. The scraping of his heels made him flinch as he tried moving closer to his comrades. He took slow, steady breaths, ignoring the discomfort caused by the ever-present stench.

Rogers drew his shield close while tightening its straps around his forearm. He listened to the distinct yipping and growling of canines. The chirping birds in the forest hushed into total silence. Rogers felt uneasiness filling his chest; his hands tightened into balled fists. His instincts as a soldier warned him of a threat that amounted to more than a few stray dogs on the prowl.

“Wolves?” Rogers asked.

“I thought wolves didn’t hunt people,” Natasha murmured over her shoulder at Barton. She raised both pistols to either side of her head, clicking the safeties.

Barton slipped an arrow out of its quiver and into one hand. “They don’t.”

The sounds of excited growls shot out from the tree line opposite the Quinjet’s tail. Four pairs of green lights flickered within the darkness of the forest. The glowing slits sat closely together, shifting like floating disembodied spirits. Emerging from the underbrush, a quartet of wolf-like beings skulked out into the grass, no more than 200 yards from the Quinjet. Each creature moved with the stalking precision of a typical wolf; yet their bodies were brown and gangly, as though they were handmade from dark oak logs. Their wooden fangs and claws looked amply sharp enough to rip through flesh and bone.

Natasha, raising her pistols at the creatures, tilted her head back halfway over her shoulder. “Guys, what the hell is that?”

“No idea,” Barton stated, his longbow lowered but primed with an arrow. “But it looks like they’re sizing us up pretty good.”

“Whatever they plan on doing, we need to hold our ground,” said Rogers, his voice firm but quiet. “This area isn’t going to give us any cover, so we’re going to need to hit hard and early if they come at us. Barton, I want you on overwatch. The top of the aircraft should give you a full view of the field. Pick ‘em off if you have a clear shot.”

Barton nodded. He turned and rushed over to the Quinjet, his boots thumping across the dirt. The commotion provoked growling from the wolves. They paced about in a small circle, glares fixated on the assembly of humans.

Rogers hunkered down into a squat as he primed his shield in front of his body. “Romanoff, Coulson—you two are on me. Don’t fire unless those things make the first move. If they manage to get in close, I can knock them back.”

“You got it, Captain,” Coulson said, pulling up alongside Natasha to take position behind Captain America. He eyed the snarling wolves, all four of which had lowered their bodies and begun scraping at the ground with their claws—a clear sign they were ready to pounce.

Natasha cocked her head toward Coulson. “I guess you were right about this not being Earth.”

Coulson, forcing a smile, leveled his gun’s sights on the wolves. “I really wish I wasn’t.”

“Captain!” Barton hollered from atop the Quinjet’s tail. The sound of his voice set off the wolf pack into a barking fit. Barton drew an arrow and pointed the metal tip at the agitated pack. Settling one knee onto the dirtied armored hull, he murmured, “Just say the word.”

In an eruption of feral roars, three of wolves leapt side-by-side into a sprint. They charged the humans head-on in a straight line. Their claws tore through the bare grass as they picked up speed.

The sole wolf that did not join its pack held back by the tree line. It silently lurked about by the meadow’s edge and watched the charge.

Repeated cracks of pistol fire smothered the roars. Bullets whizzed over the wolves’ heads. One of the wolves shrieked as its left foreleg suddenly shattered. The creature, taken by its own momentum, tumbled headlong into the ground as its wooden form crumpled into pieces. A small cloud of green gas rose from the remains.

The remaining pair of wolves slowed under the hail of bullets. Two snaps from each of Natasha’s pistols tore through the other wolf’s jaw. The creature stopped to juggle its dangling jowl with its paws before another round tore apart its flimsy maw. A weak, defeated sob rose from the back of the wolf’s throat before its body collapsed into a pile of logs.

The last charging wolf skidded into a full stop. It lowered its head and shoulders in doglike submission. A bullet through the shoulder forced it to stumble backwards. With a yelp the creature retreated clumsily back toward the edge of the woods.

“That’s enough! Cease fire!” Rogers shouted above the gunfire. “They got the message.”

As commanded, Natasha stopped firing. A haze of smoke lingered in front of her as she reloaded her pistols. “Not exactly like the shooting range, huh?”

Coulson lowered his own weapon. “Yeah. Normally the targets aren’t trying to rip your throat out.”

Overlooking the battlefield, Barton kept his bow drawn and arrow ready. Only two wolves remained intact, one of which continued pacing by the woodline. He measured its limbs and stride. One shot into the shoulder socket would send it to the ground; from there he could either put an arrow through its skull or sever the neck from its body. Barton, however, was not going to waste arrows on potshots if he could help it.

Barton’s eyes flickered as sweat tickled the bridge of his nose. He waited for the straggler to try and make up for their losses. “Come on,” he mumbled. “What the hell are you waiting for?”

The steel frame of the Quinjet rocked. Barton’s breath stopped midway in his throat. Doglike growling from behind gave the game away.

“Shit!”

Clanking footfalls descended upon Barton. Spinning around on his knee, he fired an arrow at the incoming wolf and hit its shoulder. The creature barreled through the shot, slamming its head into Barton like a battering ram.

Rogers, Coulson, and Natasha spun around to see Barton and the wolf fall from the Quinjet and hit the ground with a thump and a crack. With the creature falling off by his side, Barton turned over on his back and moaned. Pain shot up along his spine like a flame, burning every nerve ending in its path. The worst of the throbbing seized Barton’s left arm.

Whether bone was fractured or broken mattered little; so long as Barton could not use his arms, he knew he was dead weight on the battlefield.

The wolf rose but stumbled, unable to press the attack. Its glowing eyes flickered as it tried to regain its bearings by smacking the side of its own skull with a paw. Again alert, the wolf caught sight of Barton writhing on the ground. The creature growled as it bared its fangs and stalked toward the wounded man.

The sounds of feet shuffling prompted the wolf to stop. Coulson maneuvered around the creature’s right and Rogers to its left. Natasha, however, retreated only few small steps, remaining in front of the wolf. Her presence earned several snapping barks.

“I don’t have a clear shot!” Coulson shouted, training his sights on the wolf. “Agent Romanoff, how is it on your end?”

Natasha, still silent, gently leaned from one side to the other. Each angle posed the potential of hitting Barton. He had no protection, apart from his ballistic vest. If either she or Coulson missed, she realized, Barton might not live to banter about their less than stellar aim.

Coulson's eyes darted. “Natasha…”

“Just a moment, Coulson…”

“If you’re going to act, you’d better do it fast,” Rogers said with rising urgency. A faint hum rose from his shield as he readjusted it on his arm. “We’ve got company incoming!”

Natasha stole a sideways glance. In the periphery of her vision, she could see the two remaining wolves stalking into position near their group. Once she pulled the trigger, they would launch their attack.

Natasha returned her attention to the wolf and Barton, resetting her thoughts. She had a few seconds at best. Hit or miss, there was time for only one shot.

“Nat.”

The strained yet firm voice of Clint Barton punched through the nearest wolf’s incessant growling. The creature snapped at him when he attempted to crane his head up from the ground—yet Barton did not cower in the face of the sharp fangs lingering over him.

Natasha’s face tightened with focus. She let one arm drop as she aimed a single pistol at the wolf. The creature glanced at her, its leaf like eyebrows rising with concern.

“Do me a favor,” Natasha said as her finger tightened around the trigger. “Don’t move.”

The pistol unleashed a deafening crack. The wolf’s head jerked back before its body ruptured into a myriad of logs and twigs. Splinters from the remains scattered over Barton’s chest as he lay motionless on the ground.

The two remaining wolves broke into a run, barking rabidly. Natasha whipped around and dropped to a knee, rattling off several shots. The wolves quickly veered in separate directions. One wolf stayed on course for Natasha, keeping pace even as it rushed through the gunfire.

Coulson opened fire on the wolf that had sprinted away from Natasha. A round clipped the creature’s hide, sending bits of timber sprinkling in its wake. Coulson struggled to keep up with the wolf’s winding moves.

The wolf closing in on Natasha endured the bullets slamming its wooden hide. Its gait became a succession of small leaps. With the wolf a few mere yards away, Natasha stopped firing and quickly crossed her arms in front of her head. She watched in terror as the creature roared and jumped at her.

A red and silver blur then rammed the wolf in the side with a metallic slam. Knocked off course, the creature spun through the air and crashed onto its side. After rolling to a stop, it flopped flat on its back, revealing a cracked underbelly. The wolf began wailing in agony, unable to stand.

The whirring of Rogers’ shield silenced when it rebounded into his grasp. He ran past Natasha. “Get to Barton! I’ll take care of the other one!”

“Got it,” Natasha said calmly. Without looking, she aimed a pistol at the moaning and injured wolf. Two shots later, its whaling ceased altogether.

The clacking of gunfire persisted on Coulson’s end. The wolf he battled weaved through incoming rounds. All of the other wolves were dead, and yet this one did not retreat. As far as Coulson could tell, the most it could do was delay the inevitable.

The wolf bolted ahead without regard for being hit. Coulson's shot buzzed well wide over the creature. He again clicked the trigger—but he was met by the snap of the slide on an empty gun.

Coulson glared at his pistol as if it had insulted him. “Not again...”

Coulson tried reaching for another magazine inside of his jacket, yet nothing stood between him and the oncoming wolf. In desperation, Coulson raised his arms in a last-ditch effort of self-defense. He knew, however, the jaws and claws would tear him to pieces.

Before the wolf could tackle Coulson, Captain America landed between them, brandishing his shield. The wolf yelped prior to a head first collision with the vibranium. The ringing gong that followed was almost musical. The ensuing cries of pain from the creature were not nearly as melodic.

The wolf stumbled about, entirely disoriented. Its previously narrow snout was flattened to the point where its fangs dangled out from its nose. Desperate, it scraped at its muzzle with both front claws. Nasally whines escaped through its smashed nostrils.

Rogers darted forward and swept another blow with his shield across the wold's face. The wolf bobbed back and forth in a cartoonish fashion. Rogers then reared back his leg and slammed a heel into the wolf’s face. The kick sent the creature spiraling into the adjacent hedgerows.

Seeing his work through to the end, Rogers exhaled. He then glanced over at Coulson. “Are you all right?”

Coulson’s arms remained halfway raised. He eyed the empty pistol in his hand. “I’m good.” He lowered his arms and smiled awkwardly. “Actually, that was… good. Great. Really, it was. Thanks, Captain Rogers.”

As Rogers turned around, his lips parted into a small, toothy half-grin. “Don’t mention it.”

“Oh, no. I should,” Coulson said, nodding for emphasis. Tucking the pistol underneath his jacket, he added, “If you didn’t come along, that raging hell beast thing would be making an entrée’ of my throat. That deserves a lot of mention. Repeatedly.”

Rogers’ smile faded. “We should go check on Barton.” The smile disappeared, replaced by a somber frown. “He looks like he’s in bad shape.”

Coulson’s fidgeting stopped. Like Rogers, he adopted a composed expression of concern. “Right. Lead the way, Captain.”

By the time Rogers and Coulson started on their walk toward the Quinjet’s tail, Natasha was already tending to Barton. Helped onto his feet and leaning on Natasha, he squeezed his eyes and mouth tight. His cradled his wounded arm cradled against his chest. As Barton tried supporting his own weight, he let out a hiss. Nerves tingled with fresh pain, intensifying the spasms in the wounded arm.

“Goddam,” Barton groaned, face flushing red. Seeking an outlet for his pain, he kicked a wooden log belonging to the corpse of the wolf that attacked him. “I think… I think it might be a break.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time,” said Natasha. She smirked knowingly. “Remember Johannesburg?”

Barton managed a hoarse chuckle. “Yeah, except I didn’t cut the damn zip-line.”

“Take that up with Fury, not me. I was in the other building.”

“Agent Barton,” Rogers began, reaching a stop alongside Coulson in front of Natasha and Barton, “how are you holding up?”

“I’ve been better, Captain.” Barton gasped. Letting out an uneven breath, he murmured, “Been worse.”

“It’s probably a fracture,” Natasha said, her tone bordering on dismissive. Barton glowered at her, though it was out of mild surprise rather than anger.

“You say that like I got lucky.”

Natasha flicked her head to one side as if to shrug. “If I’d been off by an inch, you’d be dead.”

The quip drew a weary chuckle from Barton. He glanced at the timber piled at his feet. Save for a few distinct parts—sharpened claws, the snout, the trunk of the body—the creature’s remains were largely unrecognizable. “Yeah, well… I should’ve seen it coming.”

“Don’t worry, Barton,” said Coulson with genuine sympathy. “You’re not the only one.” He produced the empty pistol from his jacket, holding it aloft for the others to see. “I lost count. Can you believe that? It’s the second time it happened to me today.”

All at once, Barton’s duress dissipated, giving way to an incredulous squint. “Seriously? You lost count?”

Coulson shrugged. “I know. It’s like I’m getting old or something.”

“Let’s stay focused on stabilizing that arm,” Rogers said. He pointed a thumb over his shoulder and toward the cases. “We’ve got some first aid kits in our supplies. It’s not much, but we can make a splint out of the bandages and branches from the forest.”

Natasha rolled her eyes. “Fortunately we have plenty of those now.”

Without acknowledging the remark, Rogers stepped forward and said, “Come on. I’ll carry Barton.”

Draping an arm over Rogers’ shoulders, Barton suddenly felt like he was floating across the ground. Rogers effortlessly supported all of his body weight. The residual pain gnawing at Barton’s other joints was lessened by assistance from Captain America’s tremendous strength.

The son of a bitch was strong, Barton thought. Rogers singlehandedly cleaned house when Coulson and Natasha found themselves bull rushed by the wolf creatures the second time. Whereas three of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s best agents were almost overwhelmed, Rogers had failed to break a sweat. Goofy as he looked to Barton in his star-spangled outfit, throwing his shield and punting alien dogs made from trees, Rogers was without question a soldier. Coulson’s enthusiasm for finding the living legend alive in the ice became easier to understand, except Barton could do without the gushing fanboyism.

Regrouped at the metal cases, Rogers assisted Barton in lying down on the parachute tarp. In that time, Coulson and Natasha began pooling medical supplies. Not long through the process, Coulson stopped and rubbed the back of his head, as though he had only now remembered a long-lost factoid. Allowing Rogers and Natasha finish the job, Coulson slipped a hand into his jacket and squatted beside Barton.

“Here,” Coulson said as he revealed a white and red plastic pill bottle. Its contents clattered when he brought the container into view. “It’s not exactly morphine, but it does promise pain relief for up to twelve hours.”

“Where the hell did you get that?” Barton asked, equally amused and curious.

“Back on the Helicarrier, before we left.” Coulson popped open the top and turned over the bottle, dropping three pills into his palm. “Loki nailed me pretty good when I went after him. I knew running around fighting an alien army while doped up on painkillers wasn’t going to end well, so I took the next best thing.”

Barton lifted a skeptical brow. “Aleve?”

Coulson glanced at the label. “Tylenol, actually. Extra strength. It’s not baby Aspirin.” He held out his palm to Barton, offering the pills. “It works like a charm—unless you’re pregnant or have liver problems.”

After a humored snort, Barton reached into Coulson’s hand and scooped up the pills, popping all three simultaneously into his mouth. Barton would have preferred something with more punch, but he knew being in the field did not exactly afford the comforts of a full medical suite.

“Don’t think I’m going to be your supplier now,” Coulson said wryly. Tucking the plastic bottle away into his jacket pocket, he added, “S.H.I.E.L.D. has a strict no-drug policy. At least, that’s what I’ve been told.”

Settling his head back down on the tarp, Barton let out a grunt. “If this pain keeps up, I might start begging.”

“That’s all for the medical supplies,” said Natasha. With a first aid kit in her hand, she tossed it over to Coulson, who caught the case while crouched. “When you’re done getting him hooked on Flintstones Chewables, see if you need to bandage anything.”

Rogers, standing next to Natasha, set a spool of black paracord on the ground. “Make sure to clean his arm and keep it still. Don’t start wrapping it until I come back with wood for the splint.”

“Planning on salvaging parts from our recently departed friends, Captain?” Natasha asked, the edge of her lips curling upward toward a smirk.

“Actually, I was planning on making a quick trip into the forest. The trees around here look like they’ll do the job.” Rogers adjusted his shield, casting an eye over the tree line into which he had previously disposed one of the wolves. “Hopefully I won’t run into any trouble along the way.”

“You want any help with that, Captain Rogers?” asked Coulson as he rose to his full height.

“No. The two of you remain here with Barton.” Leaning over one of the cases, Rogers grasped a plastic oval object, one no larger than a dime, and wedged it into his right ear. “If something comes up, we’ll use our radios. I’ll try to maintain line of sight on the clearing. I shouldn’t be any longer than five minutes, but if I’m delayed, I’ll give a call.”

Rogers started backing away from the group and for the forest when a long howl froze him in place. Coulson and Natasha joined Rogers in looking skyward, their faces etched with concern.

“More of them?” Rogers asked.

Natasha clasped her pistols. “You might want to take rain check on your trip, Captain.”

Wood clacking against wood, accented by an eerie hum, picked up where the howling left off. The scattered remains of the wolves levitated within a green aura. The floating timber began assembling themselves into coherent forms. From inside darkened eye sockets, green light flickered back to life. After a brief pause, joints and limbs snapped into place.The reanimated bodies shifted and adjusted to break the dormancy of death which had frozen them.

“Great,” Coulson muttered. He clicked a fresh magazine into his pistol. “They’re back for seconds.”

The wolves growled as they paced into a wide ring around the humans. The team responded by closing ranks around Barton, with Coulson and Natasha facing in one direction as Rogers stood back-to-back with them. The snarling, fang-bearing wolves held their ground.

“I don’t suppose you’ve got a plan for this one, Captain?” Barton called out as he tried propping himself onto his good elbow. Gasping in pain, his head thumped back on the tarp. He promptly slammed a fist against the ground. “Damn it…”

Growling from afar added to the wolf pack's sounds. Emerging from the underbrush was the fifth and final pack member, the one whose destruction by Rogers’ boot was but a memory. Like all the others, the wolf had stepped out into the clearing fully restored. It threw its head upward and roared to announce it had returned. The rest of its brethren acknowledged the cry with howls of their own. After the shared cries ebbed, the wolf joined the pack in tightening the circle around their prey.

“The gang’s all here now,” Natasha said. Her pistols shifted between separate targets. “How do we handle this?”

“Same as last time,” Rogers stated firmly. “We keep our formation tight, our fire concentrated.” He inched closer to Coulson and Natasha. “On my mark, both of you take out the three in front of you; I’ll take the two on my side.”

Looking at Rogers out of the corner of her eye, Natasha arched a brow. “What’s the plan if they get back up? Keep shooting them?”

Rogers grimaced and shook his head. “We’ll worry about that later.”

“Agent Romanoff,” Coulson spoke up, “how much ammo did you bring?”

“Enough to get the job done.” Natasha cast an eye on him, sincerely curious when she asked, “Why? Do you need spares?”

“Well, if it’s not too much trouble…”

The wolves closed the gaps in their ranks, converging in from every direction.

All five pack members then halted. Simultaneously each creature placed a blocky set of claws forward and craned their necks low. More green clouds of foul-smelling gas jetted out from their mouths and smothered the team, eliciting light coughs from both Barton and Coulson.

Grunting through the fumes, Rogers scowled. “On my mark…”

A monstrous roar from beyond the wilderness forestalled the impending fight. The wolf pack's growling dissolved into whimpers and widened expressions of alarm. The creatures lifted their snouts up toward the sky. They then slowly backed away from the humans they had encircled.

The distant roar did not have time to taper off into total silence. Another guttural bellowing shook the meadow, its second iteration sounding more like a bear’s cry. Squawking birds took flight out of the trees. The five wolves made haste and scampered past their human foes, not content to even offer a passing glance. Crying in terror, the whole of the pack vanished into the thick hedgerows.

“What on Earth…?” murmured Rogers, gaze turned aloft and face scrunched.

Coulson slowly lowered his pistol, listening to the roar wane into a distant rumble. “I think we might’ve pissed off a bigger one.”

“Bigger one?” Barton’s eyes widened. “They get bigger?”

“It’s him.”

The three men looked to Natasha. Instead of an explanation, they found her locked in place, her arms shaking. Natasha’s lips were partly agape, her skin pale.

Him?” Rogers let his question linger. “You mean Banner?”

“Banner?” repeated Coulson. “Why would Banner come back?”

“I don’t know,” Natasha stated. The quivering irritation in her voice betrayed her anxiety. “But it’s…”

The snapping of wood interrupted Natasha. She and Coulson turned toward the tree line behind them, their aim drawn by leaves crunching beneath slow, deliberate steps. The darkness of the forest, however, obscured any visible signs of life.

“That doesn’t sound like Banner,” Rogers whispered. “We’d hear him coming a mile out.”

“Check the trail,” Barton said.

Coulson glanced at Barton, silently acknowledging his advice. He peered at the Quinjet’s port side, barely able to see past its massive frame. “I’m coming up empty. Captain Rogers, Agent Romanoff—do you see anything?”

Attentively scanning that area as well, Rogers’ head jolted in recognition. “There! I’ve got movement off the port!”

“Now I see it,” Coulson said, training his sidearm.

A pair of pistols pulled up alongside Coulson, much to his pleasant surprise. Natasha’s face lacked its natural flush, but her focus had returned. “I’ve got it, too.”

“Well, at least it doesn’t sound like the Big Guy,” Coulson said in grim consolation.

Natasha glared at him passingly. “Somehow that still isn’t comforting.”

“Sorry.”

“Quiet!” Barton whispered sharply.

The team watched as a silhouette—a small one, certainly not human—trotted out from beside the Quinjet. The figure’s footfalls clomped in a steady yet measured progression. As the creature moved out of the morning shade cast by the Quinjet, it revealed itself draped in a brown cloak. A ray of sunlight glinted off gold objects wrapped around its right foreleg.

Rogers held up a hand. “Stop right there! That’s far enough!”

To Captain America’s surprise—to everyone’s surprise—the creature halted. Even in plain view, the hood it wore shrouded its face, save for the tip of a gray snout sticking out from the shroud of its cloak. The furry maw was unlike that of the wolves, as were its legs and hooved feet. The creature steadied itself, its black hooves scraping softly through some of the small lumps of dirt bordering the Quinjet.

“Uh…” Rogers’ lips parted but released only a stuttered breath. “Identify yourself.”

The small creature’s head cocked to the side, as if mirroring the curiosity of its human counterparts. “Why must that shield be strapped to your arm? Away with those weapons, for I mean you no harm.”

The birdsongs in the trees regained their former life, serving as a backdrop for the stunned silence that absorbed the entire team. They stared at the creature whose inflection sounded melodic, like an amalgamation of nondescript African and Caribbean accents. Natasha and Coulson lowered their guns slightly, sharing bemused squints. Rogers’ arm and shield drooped down to his side, his eyebrows furrowed and jaw locked.

“Thank you so much for showing some trust,” the creature said, effortlessly maintaining its vaguely sing-song tone. “For when trekking through the Everfree, trust is a must.”

“Everfree?” Rogers repeated. “Is that where we are?”

The creature did not reply. Instead it craned its head downward, manipulating its hoof to clasp the hem of its hood. The cloak pulled away to reveal an equine-like being bearing resemblance to a diminutive zebra. Its coat bore a vibrant pattern of dark and light gray stripes; the mane, striped like the rest of the coat, was spiked into a style reminiscent of a mohawk. Five gold hoops were wrapped around its neck. A large hooped earring of the same color dangled from the creature’s right ear.

The zebra arched an eyebrow—or at least lowered one eyelid more than the other one. Its cyan eyes were larger than those of a typical equine. Equally unlike a horse or pony, this creature retained a human like gaze of recognition; it showed discernible attentiveness in its quiet study of the entire group.

An intrigued hum rose from the back of the zebra’s throat. “With a closer look, this much is clear: the four of you are not from around here.”

Natasha gave a tight shake of her head. “No. No we’re not.” Her growing wariness led her to frown. “And who—or what—are you supposed to be?”

“As for a name, Zecora will do,” the zebra said. It tilted its head forward, casting greater scrutiny upon the group. “Now, if I may ask, who are all of you?”

Rogers, though unable to make sense of what was happening, did not hesitate in stepping out in front of the group. “Captain Steve Rogers… ma’am.” He paused, tacitly seeking confirmation about the zebra’s gender. When Rogers received a nod from Zecora, he continued. “These are Agents Romanoff, Coulson, and Barton.”

“We’re from out of town,” Coulson added, tucking away his pistol. “Way out of town, really.”

Zecora’s muzzle tightened into a mild frown, her eyes shifting to her left side. The Quinjets remains towered over her. “From my home in the forest, I saw the sky light up with a flash. Soon afterward I heard a very large crash. That what fell was so gigantic”—Zecora gulped loudly—“I see now why the animals were in a panic!”

“That explains the run-in with some of the local wildlife,” Natasha remarked to Rogers as she shoved her weapons into their holsters.

Rogers swiveled his head upward. “Speaking of which, we shouldn’t stay out here in the open. From the sound of it, there might be something big coming our way. I don’t want us sticking around to find out what it is.”

Zecora looked at Rogers. “You, too, heard that awful sound?” She then shook her head, cryptically adding, “Be at ease, Captain, for there’s nothing inbound.”

“Enough with the Sam-I-Am,” Natasha snapped. “What are you saying exactly?”

“Please don’t be so angry, my dear!” Zecora exclaimed. She began to tread rearward, head lowered and ears folded back. “The source of the roaring stands right here.”

Rogers shot a wide-eyed glance at Zecora. “You made that sound?”

“Well, that’s reassuring,” Barton muttered.

Halting in place, Zecora nodded tepidly in response to Rogers. “It’s no secret that timberwolves won’t flee, unless faced with a larger enemy. With that in mind, I played on their fears, conjuring the roar when an Ursa major appears.”

“An Ursa major.” Natasha uttered the term like she were repeating a bad punchline. “What? You have space bears, too?”

“That doesn’t sound so crazy, actually,” said Coulson, addressing the subject with a tone of genuine consideration. Apart from a brief, sympathetic smile from Zecora, he was met by stares and raised eyebrows. Coulson’s mouth wrinkled in mild embarrassment. “I only mean to say it’s not totally outlandish, all things considered. They’ve got wolves made of trees called ‘timberwolves’. Space bears might exist.”

Rogers blinked. “Aside from… space bears, what else is around here?” His eyebrows knitted in growing bewilderment. “And where exactly are we?”

From the bowels of the wilderness, a long howl added a foreboding footnote to Rogers’ inquiry. The glow of the sun disappeared behind a passing cloud, casting a long shadow over the meadow.

Frown deepening, Zecora said, “It is not wise for us to stay, when timberwolves are on their way.”

“Time’s running short,” said Rogers as he locked a stare onto Zecora. “Can you tell us where we can go for supplies?”

Zecora’s ears again folded back over her head, and she glanced toward the path from which she came. With the weapons the team carried and their less than receptive temperament, it occurred to Rogers why she might have second thoughts. Loki, Stark, and even Thor had been off-putting from the moment Rogers first encountered them, with Loki being the most malevolent. But each man treated whatever place they set foot in as an arena, and they demanded that everyone else pay homage to their presence.

Were the rest of them really all that different right now?

Rogers took note of the spent shell casings that littered the field. He remembered Banner’s blunt appraisal during the confrontation on the Helicarrer: S.H.I.E.L.D., the Avengers—whoever they were supposed to be—had a way of dragging bystanders into their fights. Their team was armed, rude, and curt. Good intentions could not excuse the way they struck fear into this talking zebra, strange though she was. Regardless of her origins, she did not deserve to be bullied.

Softening the tension locking his jaw, Rogers sank down to one knee and rested his shield against his thigh. He leaned forward with a measure of care. “Zecora, we’re a long way from home, and we aren’t going to last long out here in the woods. You’re the only person we’ve met so far who can give us a fighting chance.” Rogers let out a breath of somber resignation. “I’m sorry for the trouble we’ve caused you, but we need your help.”

Zecora allowed her nervous hooves to settle and gaze to meet with that of Steve Rogers, but her frown endured. “It can be difficult even for me, to find supplies in the Everfree.”

Rogers glanced away and softly pounded a fist against his own thigh. “Is there anyone else who could help? We’re not looking to impose. Our priority is getting out of here as soon as possible.”

“Just a few things and we’d be out of their hair,” Coulson said. He paused. “Or mane. Whichever they have.”

Zecora tapped a hoof against her chin. Humming to herself for several seconds, her ears perked up and her brow rose gently.

“Beyond this forest there is a safe place that might furnish you with some space.” She turned and pointed a hoof toward the path leading into the meadow. “And at the end of this trail and through the weeds, there lives a shy pony who can tend to your needs.”

“Really?” Rogers offered a grin, buoyed by hope. “Can you take us there?”

“I can lead you— and why would I not?” Zecora cast a cautious but earnest smile over each of the humans as she approached them. “There’s no sense leaving you in this unfortunate spot.”

Rogers’ chest rose as he smiled, relieved of an oppressive weight. “Zecora, I can speak for all of us when I thank you for lending us a hand. It’s very much appreciated.”

Expression impassive, Coulson tilted his head toward Natasha and whispered, “Wouldn’t it be ‘hoof’?”

Natasha opened her mouth to speak, but then snapped it shut. In lieu of saying nothing, she folded her arms.

Zecora was oblivious to the exchange happening behind Rogers when she stopped a few feet in front of him. Her nostrils flared as a faint but recognizable rotting scent filled the air. “I hope your thanks are not misplaced, but now is the time for us to make haste.”

“I agree,” said Rogers. “Zecora, I need you to give me a rundown on that trail before make the hike. The more we know, the better we can prepare for the terrain and possible chokepoints.” Remaining on a knee, he looked and pointed at Coulson and Natasha. “One of you should grab whatever supplies you can carry. Take only what’s essential: medical supplies, canteens, and rations. The other should go ahead and bandage Barton. You won’t have time for a proper field dressing, so do your best to make sure that arm is clean and stable. Let’s aim to be out of here in five.”

Natasha glanced at Coulson. “Do you want to keep playing doctor?”

“Sure,” he said. “It’ll cut down on the paperwork.”

With Rogers listening intently to Zecora’s instructional rhymes and Natasha corralling the provisions amassed onto the parachute tarp, Coulson picked up the first aid kit at his feet and started unraveling its contents. Barton kept a watchful eye on Coulson as he knelt to assemble medical scissors and rolls of gauze. Under Barton’s unerring stare, Coulson fussed with a pack of antiseptic wipes. Finally he looked up at Barton.

“All right,” Coulson said, letting the plastic packs crinkle between his fingers. “Is this about the space bears thing? I honestly didn’t think it was likely. More like a possibility.”

Barton’s expression went unchanged.

“Or is it the rhyming zebra?” Coulson looked over his shoulder. He lingered in watching Rogers gesticulate and Zecora nod in approval. “She seems nice enough. Honestly, if all she does is talk like Dr. Seuss—”

“Coulson,” Barton interrupted.

Coulson turned to Barton. “Yeah?”

“Before I let you start wrapping me up,” Barton said, nodding at the rolls of gauze and medical tape, “I want you to answer one question.”

“Go for it.”

Air rushed through Barton’s nostrils and his eyes flickered. “What the hell was in those pills?”

Author's Note:

Revision made 9/4/2014