“Hawkeye, what’s your twenty?” Steve asked, sounding out of breath.
“Um…” Clint’s voice, anything but professional—professionalism had been the first thing to go out the window in this battle—flooded through their earpieces. “I’m not sure if you’re going to believe this, but I’m on a school bus.”
Natasha looked around the room she’d landed in. There weren’t very many places to hide—unlike the rest of the building—and her time was running out. With a shrug, she gathered her strength and jumped up until she was on the trapeze swing over her head. She pulled out a Glock, checked the clip. “How did you get to the ground level so fast?”
“Then how the hell—”
“There’s a school bus on the roof, remember?” Clint said.
“I’ve got eyes on him,” Tony reported.
“Then maybe you could do something about the giant concrete elephant trying to kill me?” Clint asked.
“For one of the top-ranked assassins in the world, you sure are needy.” Natasha heard the whine of Tony’s repulsors as he changed direction.
Well, that was handled, which was good because Natasha had problems of her own. Somewhere on the third floor, a rogue train set had managed to separate her and Bruce—who thankfully for the city of St. Louis hadn’t Hulked out yet—throwing Bruce into some kind of indoor skate park and tossing her unceremoniously into some kind of circus-y room. Though she imagined Barton would feel right at home there, it had creeped Natasha out.
Even creepier than that, though, was the fact that to get to it, she’d been tossed clear through some kind of side-show carnival or horrors den to land in said circus room.
And, oh, the statues had come to life and were currently trying to kill the Avengers. That seemed rather significant.
Natasha’s current foe was a giant statue of a fat child, almost as tall as she was and four times as round, wearing checkered overalls and bearing a platter with a giant cheeseburger on it. It had tried to fling the platter and burger at Natasha’s head already, but it had quite a ways to go before it reached Steve’s level of competence at discus throwing.
Still, Natasha had no intention of being killed by a statue advertising some fast food place she’d never heard of. She would never live it down if she did. The thought of Clint’s laughter made her grit her teeth and wait, balanced easily on the trapeze swing as she waited for Ol’ Big Boy to come running in.
When she heard the unmistakable sound of cement feet clomping down the hallway, through the side-show room, she dropped backward, catching herself with the backs of her knees, and began to rock the trapeze swing. Big Boy rushed in; Natasha reached the peak of her swing and flipped off of the bar, putting two in the statue’s forehead as she did so. She landed on cat’s feet as the statue crashed to the ground.
“Big Boy down,” she reported over the comm.
“I’m sorry, what?” Tony asked. “Red, did you just murder a fast food icon?”
“I don’t have time for this,” Natasha said.
“Grab Bruce and get down here, then,” Steve said. “The whale’s still causing trouble. It’s trying to eat Thor.”
Natasha ran out into the main area on the third floor and nearly blanched at what she found there. “Uh, tell Thor to hold off on the Jonah impression for a minute,” she said.
“What? What is it, Nat?” Clint asked.
An army of disembodied hand figures and doll heads was slowly bouncing its way out of the arts and crafts section next to the indoor skate park. They moved along the wooden floor, slithering in between the statues that somehow hadn’t been turned by the curse—only Big Boy, the whale on the first floor, and the snakes in the gate, and the elephant and praying mantis on the roof had been turned, according to the others’ reports—approaching Natasha in a wave of small, terrifying toys.
“Never mind,” she said, and started shooting as she ran. They were between her and the staircase and no way, no way was she dealing with that. Nicholas J. Fury did not pay her enough to deal with having that image on her freaking psyche, thank you very much.
It ended up saving her life; Natasha ducked into a grand ballroom area right as three of the human enemy appeared at the top of the main staircase. They opened fire, the bullets chewing through the walls.
Natasha ran on, though she fired a couple of shots behind her to deter any from following her. Maybe there was a secondary staircase in the back. Just their luck that they’d been interrupted by moving statues before they’d been able to get a look at the floor plans. Though she wondered now what the hell that would have done; the City Museum in St. Louis, Missouri did not appear to operate by any sense of logic on the planet Earth. Even she’d been floored when they had walked into the lobby to see giant slides from the third floor all the way to the first floor.
And that was to say nothing of the wire-work of a jungle-gym with two actual friggin’ airplanes in it outside, above the parking lot. People let their children play here? How were they not dealing with lawsuits out the wazoo?
So when she ran into what had once been some sort of security deposit box room, Natasha didn’t even blink. She merely ducked behind a vault door and reloaded. She had cover. The bad guys didn’t. They’d have a hard time coming for her without getting a headshot for their trouble.
Granted, there was still the scary army of doll heads and disembodied hands to worry about.
“Tony,” she said. “You hack a map of this place yet? I’m pinned by the Army of Things I Will Have Nightmares About for Months and guys with Uzis.”
“Little busy with Babar the Horrible up here, Red.”
“I got it,” Clint said, and the floor of the museum shook with the familiar blast of an explosive arrow head.
“Wow, why didn’t you lead with that?” they all heard Tony ask.
“Pretty sure if elephants are endangered, concrete elephants are doubly so.”
“Gentlemen, need I remind you that we’re fighting a whale the size of a house down here and Nat’s pinned down?” Steve said in that deceptively mild voice he did so well.
“Sorry, Cap. Nat, where are you?”
“Safety deposit box room. Main staircase is blocked.”
“Head west, there’s a tunnel and you might be able to bottleneck ’em.”
“On my way, Nat,” Clint said.
Tony had neglected to mention where the tunnel let out, Natasha thought as she ran back toward it. At least one of Clint’s acid arrow heads would take care of the doll heads, giving her fresh nightmares of melting doll heads, no doubt, but until back-up arrived, she was on her own.
She skidded to a halt when she found the tunnel, which was large enough to walk through. It was also covered in mirrors, its two walls forming an upside down V overhead and creating an eternal illusion effect that she might have found neat if it weren’t giving away her freaking position. “I am going to kill you,” she promised Tony without activating her comm. Left with no other choice, she scaled the walls and held herself up by sheer force of will and pressure at the junction in the ceiling where the walls met above her head. She took a deep breath and tried to make herself as small as physically possible.
And then she waited.
It didn’t take long for the three with Uzis, who could move considerably faster than the doll-head-and-hand army, to scout out the tunnel. Her ploy worked: they walked down the tunnel without seeing her. She waited until two had gone past her, and then she dropped.
It happened quickly: the guy bringing up the rear shouted and brought his gun up to take her down. She threw herself into a slide for home plate. His missed punch knocked out his nearest comrade, a stroke of luck for her. Even as that man fell and the first turned to shoot Natasha, she came up behind the guy in the rear and used him as a shield. He tried to turn, but she karate-chopped him in the side of the neck.
Messy, she thought, collecting two of the guns. She wondered if the doll heads were carnivorous.
“Nat, can you get to the windows on the north side of the building?” Clint asked.
“I can now,” Natasha said, and ran for it.
The windows were probably leaded glass or something—apparently, the City Museum, before it had become the stuff of imaginations and nightmares and every hoarders’ biggest wet dream, had been some kind of shoe factory—but she didn’t care. She kicked one out and leaned out. After a second, she spotted Clint’s head peering over the side of the building and waved.
He waved back and rappelled down, swinging in through the window. “So your solution is to get pinned down with me?” she asked.
“What can I say? I missed your face. It’s a nice face. I wouldn’t have any other face beside me while fighting living toys.”
“Maybe you should skip the sap for after we’ve escaped the weirdest place I’ve ever seen?” Natasha asked as they ran together toward the main staircase.
“I dunno, giant statues trying to kill us aside, I think it’s pretty neat.”
“I think you’re cr—” Natasha broke off as they heard a familiar roar. “Oh, huh. That took longer than expected.”
“I think Bruce was trying to keep from Hulking out because he wanted to see the dinosaurs on the second floor later on,” Clint said conversationally.
“Bruce likes dinosaurs?”
“Yeah, he’s a total nerd for them. How’d you get out of going to see Jurassic Park in 3-D last month?”
“I was in Istanbul.”
They rounded the corner into the main area of the third floor, where they found the Hulk irritably swatting at the tiny disembodied hands that were trying to grab at him. The hands made a satisfying crack as they hit various walls and pieces of old architecture lying about the main area.
The noises were not nearly loud enough to mask the sound of what looked like a gigantic tree frog the size of a Volkswagen climbing up the stairs. “Uh, Clint?” Natasha asked.
He turned, and jumped. “Holy shit! Where did that come from?”
“The second floor. I hate this place so much.” Natasha swung and prepared to empty both clips into it, but mid-turn, the Hulk let out a giant roar and spun in place. He sprinted back into the indoor skating park area. “What the hell is he up to now?”
“I stopped trying to anticipate the Hulk after that thing in Belize.”
“Helpful, Barton. Also, explosive arrow head? Now? Please?”
Clint triggered the switch on his quiver and drew the arrow. Even as he did so, they heard yet another giant roar. The Hulk barreled back in, carrying what looked like to be a humongous pencil.
“HULK SMASH!” he roared, and brought the pencil down hard on the tree frog, which crashed through the staircase and down to the bottom level.
They heard squawking from the comm—Tony had apparently joined Steve and Thor in fighting the huge-ass whale on the first floor—and then an aggrieved, “What the hell was that?”
“Was a frog,” Clint said as the Hulk let out a pleased snort. “It’s not one anymore.”
“That’s great and all, but can you please get down here and help out? I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but Moby Dick’s an even bigger pain than we thought.”
Natasha looked at Hulk, still holding a pencil the size of a giant redwood tree, and then smiled. She had the solution for the giant whale. “I think we can pencil it in,” she said, and Clint groaned.