• Published 6th Feb 2014
  • 5,083 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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You've Got a Condition

Chapter 4
You’ve Got a Condition

Bruce Banner’s eyes fluttered open. The light blue field of a blurry sky was the first sight to greet him. His skin tingled with goose bumps from a breeze that carried over his body. Banner had awoken one too many times just like this not to know what had happened, though repetition never lessened the subsequent sickening slushing in his stomach after he lost control.

Letting out a shaky breath, Banner slapped a hand over his eyes, attempting to rub out the tingling soreness. Bile continued snaking up to his throat. Any effort to stand and the last of the snacks Stark shared with him on the Helicarrier would end up in a puddle on the ground. Rather than risk making a mess, Banner remained flat on his back, permitting the cold soil to rob his body of remaining heat.

Soon he would have to rise, but not yet.

The upside to all of this was that Banner remained alone. Sometimes the Other Guy did not grant him the privilege of waking up in a quiet, isolated place; sometimes Banner had to spit out the acid lurking in the back of his mouth and scramble for shelter. But the chirping of birds and leaves swishing with the wind assured him he could take the time to reset before running again. Fresh air washed over him—a welcome sensation that soothed Banner’s stormy stomach.

“What is this thing?”

Banner’s chest squeezed at the sound of an unfamiliar voice. The receding bile surged upward yet again under renewed tension. He carefully lifted his hand away from his face, allowing a glint of sunlight to hit his sensitive eyes. Banner squinted through the blurriness that saturated his vision, but the blue sky was overcome by colorful shapes hovering about him. Though they were close, their distinctive features throbbed in and out of focus.

A red and pale yellow figure leaned over Banner. “I think it’s alive, you guys!” Its voice was like that of a child with a southern accent.

A being to his left, colored pale and topped with shades of pink and purple, hummed as if in thought. “It looks like it’s really hurt, though.”

“Let’s find out,” said another visage, one that stood at Banner’s right side, its scratchy voice brimming with self-assurance. As the figure lurched closer, its orange and purple colors consumed the entirety of Banner’s sight. “Hey! Are you okay?”

Banner’s lips parted, but a glob of saliva slipped its way into his windpipe. He covered his mouth and coughed, trying his best not to spew spittle upon whoever was speaking to him. The creature immediately jolted back along alongside its two compatriots, yet the trio did not retreat.

“I guess that’s a maybe,” said the orange creature, apologetic.

Overcoming the coughing fit, Banner cleared his throat loudly. He smacked his tongue inside his mouth, gathering all the spit he could before gulping it down in one swallow. With one hand still covering his mouth, Banner shifted his other hand onto his sensitive abdomen and grunted.

The three figures were silent now, enraptured by Banner’s struggle against the urge to vomit. As the creatures gained greater clarity, he felt the excess tightness loosen in his chest. They looked like tiny horses whose eyes were several sizes too large for the proportions of their heads. Tied over their shoulders were red patchwork cloaks, not unlike capes kids might wear when impersonating superheroes.

Banner’s gaze darted across the three colorful miniature equines. The more he looked at them, the more his chest relaxed under pressure. Strange as the horse creatures were, they looked harmless—hardly as threatening as Loki or the US Army. It seemed unlikely they would demand his surrender or call in a strike team armed to the teeth. At least, he hoped such would not be the case.

Blinking slowly, Banner further realized that unless he was suffering from especially vivid auditory hallucinations, these creatures were capable of communication. That they evidently spoke English was in its own right a curious revelation, one that further piqued his interest. The arrival of the Asgardians had already answered the question regarding whether humanity was alone in the universe. But how could these creatures, so disparate from both normal horses and human beings, have developed such humanlike characteristics, including an identical language? Did this have something to do with the activities of races like the Asgardians?

Banner licked his crusty lips, mustering the guile to speak. There would only be one way to know for certain.

“Is this Asgard?”

The horses looked at each other, and then back at Banner. The yellow horse, whose red mane was adorned with a pink bow, tilted its head to one side. “Uh, a what now?”

Glancing downward, Banner murmured, “I guess not.”

“Are you a space alien?” the orange horse suddenly asked, glaring intently at Banner.

Banner looked back up, matching the horse’s gaze. “I don’t know.” He scratched the side of his head. “Am I?”

“Well, you are sort of a talking monkey… thing,” said the light gray horse with the curly mane, who sounded the youngest out of the three. “Did you come from outer space?”

“I might have.” Reclining on an arm, Banner eyed the little horse that had finished speaking. He stopped moving; only now did he see the short horn sticking out from beneath its mane. “Are you a unicorn?”

“Mhmm!” the horse squeaked happily. A small frown quickly replaced its glee. “I’m not really all that great with magic, though.”

“Isn’t your sister supposed to be helpin’ you with that?” the yellow horse asked.

The unicorn kicked its hoof against the ground. “I keep asking Rarity to help but she won’t listen. She’s either making dresses or going to the spa or doing other business stuff.”

“I hate to break up this super exciting chat about your sister, Sweetie Belle,” the orange horse cut in, “but we’ve got better things to talk about. You know, like the big hairy alien right in front of us.”

“It ain’t that hairy, Scootaloo,” the yellow horse said, lifting an incredulous brow.

“He’s hairy enough to me, Apple Bloom!” the horse, evidently named Scootaloo, exclaimed. It then cast a tentative gaze on Banner. “You are a he, right?”

“Uh…” Hit by a wave of self-consciousness, Banner scanned the length of his body. As was usually the case, the Other Guy had left no clothing intact, not even the tattered pants provided by the security guard from the warehouse in Jersey City. Banner quickly shot a hand down to cover his groin and crossed a thigh over for additional protection. “Yeah… Yeah, I am.”

“Cool…” Scootaloo murmured, her eyes growing wider in amazement. “A real space alien.”

Coughing once more, Banner’s eyelids squeezed shut, combating a dull migraine pricking at his temples. “Where am I exactly?”

“Just outside Ponyville,” Apple Bloom said. “Near the Everfree Forest.”

Banner squinted at Apple Bloom. “Everfree Forest?”

“We were about to go there on a treasure hunt!” Scootaloo declared. When she spoke—and Banner presumed all three horses were female, given their speech and demeanor—something rapidly fluttered underneath the cape draped over her back. “Sweetie Belle says sunrise is the best time of day to find rare loot! And boy was she right!”

Sweetie Belle pursed her lips. “Um, I don’t think space aliens count as treasure.”

Scootaloo turned to Sweetie Belle. “Says who? Space aliens are totally rare.”

“I’ve seen Rarity bring home all sorts of gems and rubies, but no space aliens.” Sweetie Belle’s voice then wavered when she said, “At least, I don’t think she has.”

Banner smiled bemusedly, watching the exchange unfold. A humored snort evolved into a snicker. He should have been scared of them—afraid of talking equines whose pastel colored coats, round heads, and large eyes made them appear like cartoon characters. But Banner had run afoul of world governments and an alien who styled himself after a Norse god; he had willingly jumped headfirst into the fray despite his better sense of the catastrophic consequences. Conversing with miniature horses and unicorns was an anticlimactic follow-through to the long-advertised invasion of Earth.

Banner’s chuckling receded when he noticed the three little horses were staring at him as though he had grown a set of antennae. As it turned out, they were just kids. They had not the slightest clue of his experiences. It was not so funny after all, then, having a laugh at their expense. And as Banner sucked in a deep breath, he understood how dangerous it was to be in their midst. His jaw locked in a flash of terror that vanished in the instant it arrived.

The tip of Apple Bloom’s muzzle wrinkled. “Is somethin’ wrong, mister?”

Banner shook his head once. “Sorry about that.” Shifting his weight, he said, “I guess I’m just having trouble adjusting to being a space alien.”

Scootaloo’s face tightened for a moment, harboring an edge of scrutiny. In an instant her expression softened as she shrugged. “Huh. I guess that sorta makes sense."

Just after Scootaloo spoke, Banner took the opportunity to further hoist himself away from the ground. Dirt scratched the skin of his backside as he curled his legs over each other. He was careful to keep his body strategically covered, greatly uncomfortable with sitting bare naked amongst children. None of the three girls appeared to mind his lack of clothing, but Banner did not take their lack of response as an invitation to be casual.

Now seated upright, Banner’s view of the environment was no longer occluded; he could see well out into the distance of a scenic landscape. The steel and concrete of New York had been replaced by rolling green hills and gentle slopes adorned with patches of trees. He sat upon a brown trail cutting over and across the grassy meadows that stretched to the horizon. Only a handful of scattered clouds threatened to obscure the morning sun.

The aroma of morning dew brought out fresh natural scents Banner had not tasted since his time hiding in the Canadian wilderness. In gathering that he was in an alien world sent a tingle through to his nerve endings. Although the countryside contained familiar sights and smells, so much more of it remained distant, as if conjured in a dream.

Yet the Tesseract’s power was hardly the stuff dreams were made of. Loki had dropped enough threats and hints for Banner to understand this place was not the home world of the Chitauri—unless Loki’s force comprised an army of adorable equines. Something had happened on Stark Tower that altered the equation. If Selvig’s device, powered by the Tesseract, punched holes in space—in effect forcing two distant areas to fold against each other—then it must have burrowed to a world well beyond Earth. And with the vacuum that had been produced by the portal over Stark Tower, Banner deduced that which was likely: Selvig’s machine malfunctioned, just as the prototype device had failed in the S.H.I.E.L.D. base during Loki’s arrival.

In short, the wrong door had been opened.

A haze settled over Banner as he rotated his neck to find the mouth of a dense forest behind him. The path disappeared into the darkness of trees and vines that formed walls of green and brown along the trail. Not even the sunlight could pierce through the canopy. But within the shade Banner caught sight of thick tree trunks broken in half. A staggered line of enormous holes in the soil ceased no more than twenty yards from where he sat. If there were any other signs of destruction, they remained hidden within the forest.

Fragmented images flickered in and out of Banner’s mind. His stomach turned over, begging for the chance to empty itself of the dizziness rising inside of him. He shook with the terror that filled him when the Quinjet tumbled through the sky. Coulson had gawked at him; then desperately tried comforting him over howling winds and waves of blue light. Banner’s fingernails tore through the straps holding him to his seat. He just wanted to get out of there. That was all he wanted. Nothing more.

The Other Guy was happy to oblige.

“So, do space aliens have names?”

Banner jolted at the sound of a voice layered in a southern accent, one coming from the horse named Apple Bloom. The shock jarred the bubbling bile building in his stomach, forcing him to lean over and at last spit out sour saliva. Air was suddenly precious, and Banner gasped as much oxygen as his burning lungs would allow. He moaned when letting go of his breath, teetering on the edge of heaving puke all across the dark earth beside him.

“Are you okay?” asked Sweetie Belle.

Okay?” Banner hissed. His breaths dipped into shallow wheezing.

Scootaloo pursed her lips to one side in confusion. “Do you need to go to the doctor or something?”

“He might need to see a vet,” Apple Bloom said in complete earnestness. “I mean, a doctor ain’t gonna be much help.”

“Like a vet would?” Scootaloo retorted. “This isn’t like taking Winona to see Fluttershy, Apple Bloom. He needs, uh...”—Scootaloo’s eyebrows furrowed in frustration—“well, whatever a space alien needs to see when it gets sick!”

Glancing at Scootaloo, Sweetie Belle said, “Well, I guess then we’ve got to find an alien doctor.”

No!”

Banner breathed rapidly after the outburst, having heard enough of the trio’s chatter. The scattered memories of his last rampage continued cycling through his thoughts. He did not want to be dragged off somewhere, stuffed into a cage to be poked and prodded by doctors. He had spent too much time running and hiding to be turned into someone else’s science experiment. These children, Banner knew, did not understand what they were doing. By virtue of their ignorance, they were going to get themselves and everyone around them hurt.

The fillies’ necks had craned back as their ears flattened against their heads. They stepped away from Banner, careful to offer him more space while eyeing the dirt path that led off into the distance.

“I-it’s okay if you don’t want to go to a doctor,” Sweetie Belle said, voice trembling.

Scootaloo chuckled uneasily. “Yeah. Don’t mind us.”

“We were just about to leave anyway,” Apple Bloom said, her eyes darting between her friends. “To do something. Not here. Where you are.”

In the short time Banner watched the three girls backpedal, it became apparent to him that his response had been unwarranted. As the fog over his vision further cleared and his breathing steadied, he could better see the dread in their expressions. It was exactly the kind of thing he had wished to avoid. The ignorance Banner had identified in them was not the product of underlying malevolence; they had just wanted to help him. And in feeling a breeze chill his naked body, he recognized how much help he needed.

More than anything else, Banner did not want them to see him as something to be feared.

Banner, taking in a breath, held up a hand and lowered his head. “Please. Stop.”

The three fillies froze, their faces still twisted with trepidation. Sweetie Belle shuffled herself over and hunkered in behind Apple Bloom and Scootaloo, both of whom shook in place. The two friends glanced at one another as if seeking a gesture that would signal their immediate retreat.

Banner dragged in another breath through his nostrils. “Banner.” He lifted his eyes to meet those of the fillies. “The name’s Bruce Banner.”

Ears perking up, Apple Bloom forced a weak smile. “W-well, uh, it’s n-nice to meet you, Mr. Banner. M-my name’s Apple Bloom.” She pointed an unsteady hoof at her companions. “These here are my friends: Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo.”

“Hi,” Sweetie Belle squeaked out from behind Apple Bloom.

“H-hey there,” Scootaloo said. The cloak on her back folded over her shoulders to reveal two spread wings. A blush colored Scootaloo’s cheeks, and she hastily nudged the fabric to its original position over her half-tucked feathers.

Banner locked onto Scootaloo’s wings. “You’re a winged horse?”

The flush Scootaloo wore spread further across her face. “Haven’t you ever seen a pegasus pony before?”

“Not really, no.” Banner adjusted himself and wrapped one arm across his chest. “We only talk about one Pegasus, actually. Mostly in story books.”

Scootaloo arched a brow. “You’ve only got one pegasus?”

“It’s probably ‘cause Mr. Banner’s from outer space, Scoots,” said Apple Bloom, rolling her eyes.

“You never know! There could be space pegasi!” The wings beneath Scootaloo’s cloak rapidly fluttered. “Yeah! How cool would that be?”

Sweetie Belle poked her head up and glanced at Scootaloo. “Actually, that sounds kind of ridiculous.”

Scootaloo groaned in annoyance. “The two of you aren’t any fun!” An irritated frown quickly morphed into a broad grin when she turned her attention to Banner. “How about you, Mr. Banner? You think space pegasi would be awesome?”

“I, uh…”

Banner looked in every direction aside that of Scootaloo’s eager stare, thinking of a diplomatic way to skirt their argument. Before he could respond, another surge of cold racked his sides. Banner drew his arm tighter against his body in a vain attempt to keep heat from escaping. Although the air was mild, sitting naked on the earth had taken its toll. Without moving, finding shelter, and gathering nourishment, both his body and mind would grow weak. And if Banner refused to take care of himself, the Other Guy was perfectly capable of assuring their shared survival.

As Banner lurched forward and muffled a groan, Sweetie Belle slunk for cover behind Apple Bloom. “I think we made him mad again, you guys.”

“Not mad,” Banner mumbled through chattering teeth. Shaking his head, he looked to the three girls while straining a smile through his discomfort. “I’m not mad. Don’t worry. I just, uh…” He lingered for a second, searching for the best phrase at his disposal. “I have a condition.”

Apple Bloom gulped. “Then m-maybe you should get some help.” Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle nodded in agreement.

Banner let out a humored snort—but when he saw the fillies flinch, he shook his head and sighed. “Look, I’m really sorry, girls. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. I’m just having a rough day. Being a space alien just takes it out of you.”

It was difficult at first for Banner to gauge the success of his plea. Apple Bloom, Scootaloo, and Sweetie Belle remained as they were, leery and admonished. But just as Banner’s gut sank with the prospect that he had failed to get through to them, Sweetie Belle stepped out into full view. She began walking over to him; though her steps were cautious, she did not wince or avert her gaze.

“It’s okay, Mr. Banner,” Sweetie Belle said softly, coming to a stop but a few feet from where Banner sat. “Sometimes my big sister Rarity has days where she gets really mad at me before sobbing about how much she’s sorry.” One of her eyes scrunched as she looked up toward the sky in contemplation. “Then she eats a bunch of ice cream. I honestly don’t know what that’s about.”

Scootaloo’s eyebrow rose as she rolled her gaze over toward Sweetie Belle. “Seriously. Your sister is weird when it comes to ice cream.”

“I dunno,” Sweetie Belle said while shrugging. “It calms her down. She’s back to normal by the end of the day. All it takes is like five tubs.”

“Yuck!” Apple Bloom gagged, sticking out her tongue. “I don’t even wanna think about eatin’ that much ice cream!”

“The point is,” Sweetie Belle continued, “that everypony can have a bad day—even space aliens. It doesn’t make you bad person. You just need time to adjust.”

By this time Banner’s mouth had squeezed tight, suppressing both chattering teeth and amusement. He nodded knowingly at Sweetie Belle. “Yeah. I’m kind of like that—except without all the ice cream.”

Scootaloo sighed. “That’s a relief.”

The repeated mention of food stirred a loud growl from Banner—not a throaty growl, but one rumbling in his stomach. The grumble was distinct enough to grab the attention of the fillies; they tilted their heads and gawked at Banner.

Looking up with a bashful smile, Banner kept his arm coiled around his body, idly stroking up and down his aching ribcage. “I guess I could still go for some vanilla, though.”

A short pause came after Banner’s words—then the fillies broke into a fit of giggles. With their laughter, the tension hanging over the whole group dispersed. Banner even chuckled—not in a bitter or embarrassed manner, but out of genuine pleasure. A hint of warmth poked through the cold that had sunk through his chest. The perpetual weight of remaining in control rolled off of Banner, even if only momentarily.

With the laughter dying down, Apple Bloom’s eyes shot open with a twinkle. “Hey! You know what? If you’re really hungry, Mr. Banner, I reckon me and the girls can get you somethin’ to eat.”

“Great idea, Apple Bloom!” Scootaloo exclaimed, hopping up and hovering on her fluttering wings.

Sweetie Belle gave an avid nod of approval. “It’s positively brilliant!”

“I appreciate your offer, girls, I really do.” Banner said, glancing at the nearby forest before returning to the fillies. “But I couldn’t inconvenience all of you. I’m honestly not worth the trouble.”

“Nonsense!” Apple Bloom declared. “We’ve got tons of apples back on my farm. I might even be able to get ya an apple pie or some fritters.” With a sly grin, she leaned in closer to Banner and lowered her voice: “Besides, you aren’t gonna say ‘no’ to a free breakfast, are ya?”

“Well, when you put it that way…” Banner scratched at his forehead. “I guess I can’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” Quickly he grunted, wiping his hand down the length of his face. “I’m sorry. You know what? That was bad. Forget I even said that.”

Scootaloo squinted. “Why would you want to look a horse in the mouth?”

"Oh!” Sweetie Belle squealed, causing Apple Bloom, Scootaloo, and Banner to wince. “I just had a great idea, too! How about we have Mr. Banner stay in the clubhouse while we go get him something to eat?”

“Clubhouse?” Banner asked. “You mean like a tree fort?”

“It’s not exactly a tree fort,” said Sweetie Belle, shrugging with her admission, “but it is in a tree. We hold our Crusader meetings there.”

Curiosity nearly got the better of Banner as his mouth opened, ready to press forth with an inquiry about what exactly entailed a “crusader” meeting. Instead he glanced down at his curled legs. A voice in the back of his head warned him they could be sitting out near the woods indefinitely if he chased down every question that occurred to him. Banner merely assumed the fillies had their own little club exclusive to the three of them. It was not a stretch given how the trio proved themselves remarkably similar to children back on Earth.

“Right,” Banner murmured at last. “I should’ve known. Silly me.”

Beaming brightly, Sweetie Belle said, “The clubhouse is the perfect place. It’s definitely a lot safer than staying out here in the Everefree Forest.”

“Yeah,” Scootaloo added while moving several steps closer to the forest. “The Everefree can get crazy sometimes.” She halted a few feet behind Banner, who was halfway turned to follow the filly’s whereabouts. “Whoa! Check it out! It looks like some kind of monster just went on a rampage in there!”

Like a kid not wanting to be picked on in class by the teacher, Banner lowered his head to avoid catching yet another glimpse of his path of destruction. Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom advanced until they stood next to him, both of them engrossed in the giant sets of footprints that ended at the forest’s boundary. Banner’s hands curled into fists, growing tighter with his mounting heartbeat. He could only hope the three little ponies did not draw a connection between his appearance and the devastation they beheld. Banner was not a spiritual man, but he focused all the mental energies he could muster so that somehow, by sheer force of will, he might preserve their ignorance—both for his sake as well as their own.

“Wow,” Apple Bloom mumbled. “I ain’t ever seen anythin’ like that in my entire life.”

Sweetie Belle loudly gulped as her ear twitched. “You’re lucky you didn’t run into that thing, Mr. Banner. It looks like it was a pretty mean monster.”

Banner kept his head low. “Yeah. Really lucky.”

“I’m thinkin’ we oughta get goin’,” said Apple Bloom, turning around and walking until she once again stood in front of Banner. “Granny Smith should be makin’ breakfast right about now, so I can go grab some food from home. I’ll just say that we wanna have somethin’ to eat before we get started on crusadin’.”

Scootaloo bounded over beside Apple Bloom and flashed an enormous grin. “Then it’ll be up to me and Sweetie Belle to take Mr. Banner to the clubhouse!”

“Okay, okay,” Sweetie Belle huffed. She trotted past the rest of the group with an urgency that placed an extra bounce in her steps. “Can we just leave already? Those big footprints are starting to creep me out.”

“Aww! Don’t be such a fraidy cat, Sweetie Belle.” Scootaloo’s eager grin gained a teasing edge. “What are you scared of, anyway? The monster’s obviously long gone.”

Spinning around in an instant, Sweetie Belle puffed out her now rosy pink cheeks “I’m not a fraidy cat! I just don’t like hanging around here.”

Scootaloo stuck out her tongue. “What are you talking about? You’ve been scared this entire time!”

“I have not!”

“Have to!”

“Have not!”

“Have to!”

“Come on, girls,” Banner interjected, slightly exasperated. His tone never rose toward a shout, but it carried a quiet authority that silenced feuding fillies. Idly stroking his shoulder, Banner continued. “Sweetie Belle does have a point: it’s probably dangerous out here. But it doesn’t help anyone if we keep yelling. So how about we stop fighting with one another and go somewhere safe?”

Scootaloo’s head sagged, her expression drained of its playfulness. “Okay…”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Banner,” Sweetie Belle mumbled, eyes shimmering with the threat of tears.

Apple Bloom craned her head back and let out a loud sigh, relieved. “Goodness gracious! Thank you, Mr. Banner!”

Banner drew a quick tongue over his dried lower lip. “Don’t mention it.”

Dirt rustled when Banner dragged his legs and feet close together. The cold soil had drained enough strength from his joints and muscles to point where he wobbled upon his initial attempt to rise. Dust caked the skin and hair all along Banner’s thighs as he at last stood, but he concerned himself with making certain to cover his groin as he stood bowlegged in front of the three ponies.

Apple Bloom, who was closest to Banner, stepped back and gawked up the length of his body. “You sure are a lot taller than I thought, Mr. Banner.”

“Why are you standing like that?” Scootaloo abruptly asked, fully recovered from the sting of admonishment. Her head titled partly sideways. “You look like Spike when he has to go to the bathroom.”

A burst of giggles from the once downcast Sweetie Belle cascaded into Scootaloo as they tried stifling their sniggering with hooves over their mouths. For his own part, Banner could only smile sheepishly while drawing his legs closer together. The effort to mask his nudity compounded the ponies’ amusement, whose laughter soon included Apple Bloom’s. Despite enduring a plethora of far more compromising moments in the past, Banner presently found himself tingling with embarrassment.

“I’m, uh…” Banner waited for the laughter to diminish. “I’m a little cold.”

Apple Bloom let one more giggle go before wiping her eye. “Oh right! You don’t have a lot hair. Reckon it must be a bit chilly for ya, huh?”

Banner gave a nod, retaining the same uncomfortable smile. “Just a bit.”

“You can have this if you want,” Sweetie Belle said as she stepped up to Banner. Shifting her head and clamping down on her cloak with her teeth, she pulled the fabric loose and presented it to him. “Ith’s probly noht gohnna fith.”

Banner’s expression softened as he studied the cloak dangling from Sweetie Belle’s mouth. He accepted the cape with one hand, lifting it closer and scanning it carefully. The fabric was firm yet light, although the amateur tailoring was evident in the uneven stitching. Turning over the front side revealed gold fabric lining the inside of the cape that felt silky between Banner’s fingers. Given the luxurious look and touch of inner lining, Banner mused as to how an otherwise ragtag cloak incorporated fabric intended for far more lavish clothing.

But ultimately his attention was drawn to something else: the image of a yellow silhouette of a small pony stitched onto a field of blue. The depiction of the pony—reared up on its hind legs with a small cape of its own—reflected enthusiasm of the strange little equines whose ranks included a unicorn and a pegasus. Even as Banner quietly inspected the cape, toying with it in his hand, all three of them observed with perpetual keenness. Apart from being skittish, they assumed Banner had the best of intentions. Their earnestness was not in doubt—something that could not be said for the company Banner had kept for the past day or so.

Banner’s heart thumped out of sync under a guilty twinge. The bar for sincerity had been set low when Tony Stark was hitherto the standard. Banner had no idea what became of Stark, but the power of the portal that dragged Iron Man into the vacuum did not speak well for his chances. And if the Hulk—the Other Guy—did not obliterate the Quinjet when it passed through the Tesseract’s gateway, the inevitable crash would have scattered the craft across some meadow or torn it to pieces in the so-called Everfree Forest. Rogers, Coulson, Romanoff, and Barton—all of them were gone.

Banner was on his own. It was not a novel experience, but the existence of magical ponies altered the old formula. Apple Bloom, Scootaloo, and Sweetie Belle confirmed through their words and behavior the presence of a larger alien society, one which held a great deal in common with humankind. Banner was uncertain as to how he should process the relatively minor similarities, such as ice cream and apple pie—yet even those things hinted at a secure, self-sustaining, and thriving civilization.

The query that nagged Banner the most was the level of technology these alien ponies possessed. From what he understood, Asgard developed advanced tools through harnessing what was described to be like magic, although he initially found the claim of magic dubious at face value. Sweetie Belle’s explicit mention of learning to use magic, however, implied some similar power was at work in this world. In Banner’s mind, such a power begged the question: Did the ponies wield energies on par with the Asgardians? That would be one of the first questions he would need answered, if he had any hope of returning to Earth.

Banner pressed the cloak’s fabric against his palm with his thumb. Its otherwise simple design nonetheless underscored the profundity of this first contact. The three fillies standing before him had reacted to his presence as though it was part of a grand adventure. Their elders were not guaranteed to respond with the same childlike awe. One valuable lesson bestowed upon Banner after years of hiding was not to presume on the kindness of the locals for too long a time. If there was any chance for integration, he would seize it; if the ponies found him a monster, he would need to learn how to survive in an alien world.

For now, however, Banner’s foot was in the proverbial door. Perhaps these children could teach him more about this world. The offer of food and shelter was a good start. Hopefully their eagerness would not prematurely spoil the relations Banner might forge with their guardians.

Emerging from the depths of his thoughts, Banner cleared his throat and smiled at Sweetie Belle. He held up the cloak. “This is nice. Did you make it?”

“Yep! I made all of them myself!” Sweetie Belle declared. An enormous grin stretched across her face. “They show everypony that we’ll never stop looking for our cutie marks!”

“That’s why we’re the Cutie Mark Crusaders!” exclaimed Scootaloo, pressing up next to Sweetie Belle.

“And if we’re lucky, findin’ you might just get us our cutie marks, Mr. Banner!” Apple Bloom then followed Scootaloo’s lead; all three fillies crammed together in a sandwich of bright pastel colors.

The trio cried in unison: “Cutie Mark Crusader space alien finders! Yay!”

As the Cutie Mark Crusaders outstretched their forelegs and cheered, Banner gave a slow a nod. “Glad to be of service.”

Wasting not another moment, Apple Bloom turned around and pointed a hoof off toward the hills on the horizon. “Let’s get movin’, y’all! I’ll go get the grub while you two take Mr. Banner to the clubhouse!”

Scootaloo adopted a mock serious tone and expression when she saluted and exclaimed, “Affirmative!”

“Follow us, Mr. Banner!” Sweetie Belle called out, jumping up and bursting into a gallop down the trail leading away from the forest. Both Scootaloo and Apple Bloom did likewise, kicking up small plumes of dirt in their wake.

Banner, left standing alone by the overeager fillies, let out a long sigh. He slid the cape down beneath his waistline and gripped it so that the fabric would hang like a colorful loincloth.

“What the hell are you getting into, Banner?”

Author's Note:

Revision made 9/14/2014.