"Two hydrogen atoms walk into a bar."
"You promised," Pepper sighed, shaking her head ruefully.
"This is the last one," Tony said, holding her gaze until she finally shrugged in defeat. "So, two hydrogen atoms walk into a bar."
"I thought we were playing cards, Tony, not listening to your audition for open mic night," Natasha said as she placed her cards down, again, on the table, before giving Clint a smile. It was only her second night back after nearly two weeks gone on her last mission, and since her return, Tony had noted that she and Barton had become more attached at the hip than usual.
"Open mic night?" Steve asked, clearly confused by the phrase.
"What is this thing?" Thor also asked, having arrived from Asgard the week prior and planning to stay for at least three months.
"This thing," Bruce provided, leaning across the table as he spoke, "is where anyone can get up on stage or platform and tell jokes to an audience, like at a theater but smaller. The microphone is open for anyone to use. Open mic."
"Microphones?" Thor repeated. "The voice amplifiers we spoke of, yes?"
"Yes," Jane said with a smile and a nod.
"Can we move on now?" Tony asked, still poised to continue.
"Hold on..." Steve said, his face completely serious. "These are jokes?"
Everyone laughed. Everyone but Tony.
"Fine, fine" Tony conceded. "No one wants to hear my joke. It was a good one, but... never mind."
"Oh, stop pouting and tell it already," Pepper said, still the only one in the room who could properly put him in his place.
"No," Tony said with a short shake of his head. "The moment's gone. Someone else talk now."
"Why don't we just play?" Clint asked.
"Why don't we?" Tony returned.
"Because we're waiting on you," Natasha said, her words clipped by annoyance.
Tony shrugged, quirked his head to his side as he looked his cards over for a moment. "I fold," he announced, smiling at Natasha who rolled her eyes in return. "Anyone need a drink? Something to eat? Anything?" he asked as he stood up and moved towards the kitchen.
No one took him up on his offer, but continued the game as he puttered around the kitchen making far too much noise. Pepper, as soon as she'd folded her hand, got up to join him and after a few minutes passed it became clear that she and Tony were having some kind of heated exchange, albeit in muted tones.
When Pepper returned, she didn't look happy. Tony, only a few paces behind her, didn't look entirely thrilled himself, but as soon as all eyes turned his way, he put on a smile and set down two fresh bowls of popcorn.
"Brought snacks," he chirped. "Oh, and another thing..."
"Tony," Pepper nearly implored, shutting her eyes as she shook her head.
"This," he continued, dropping a thick folder he'd retrieved from a nearby buffet in the middle of the table, as if he hadn't heard her at all.
"What's..." Steve began to ask, but before he could reach for it, Natasha slammed her hand down on the folder and pulled it towards her protectively.
"Where'd you get this?" she asked, eyes narrowing on Tony with something like malice, and just like that everyone in the room tensed up.
"Wasn't that hard," he answered, returning to his seat.
Natasha continued to glare Tony down as the rest of the table sat by awkwardly, not certain what to do or say.
Clint finally broke the ice with a near-whispered, "Tasha," as he leaned forward and lightly touched the back of her neck.
Natasha never took her eyes off of Tony as she handed the folder off to Clint. Pepper couldn't speak, she only shook her head, saddened. She liked these people, and had made it very clear that she did not approve of what Tony had in store, but her disapproval had never stopped Tony when he felt justified.
Clint leisurely opened the folder and took a look, his demeanor the exact opposite of Natasha's. As he did Natasha moved closer and murmured something in his ear. He let out a laugh and put on a smile, before shutting the folder and setting it down again.
"I'm impressed, Tony," Clint said, leaning back in his chair again. "You know how to use Google."
"We both know that that took a little more work than just Google," Tony returned, always willing to banter.
"So you... what exactly? Had someone hack SHIELD? Just for me?" Clint asked. "Now I'm impressed and flattered."
"I actually did the work myself. Because I care."
"I'd have thought you had people for that."
"I do," Tony returned.
"And?" he asked, the smile having melted away in an instant.
"That was what I was going to ask you," Tony fired back at him.
"What's going on?" Steve asked, unable to take being in the dark any longer. He felt that way enough of the time. He didn't like it here, amongst friends.
"Maybe we should all just call it a night," Bruce suggested, going so far as to get to his feet.
But he was the only one who had moved.
"What do you want, Tony?" Clint asked, his face set cold as stone. "You want me to read this out to everyone? Talk about my feelings? Maybe we'll take a vote and see if I'm worthy enough to even be here." Clint paused, as if considering it. Flipping open the folder and riffling through a few pages. "Let's do that last one. We can all take turns. Since you've been so kind as to make this nice list for me, I'll go first."
"I just want the truth."
"Jesus, Tony," Bruce sighed, begin to pace behind the table. Clint took a quick look at him and knew, just knew, that he and Tony had already had this discussion in some form or another. Probably several times. "Is this necessary?"
"No," Pepper countered, turning to Tony. "It isn't. I told you..."
"You mean you did all this with him," Natasha snapped.
"I just want the truth," Tony repeated.
"About what?" Steve asked.
"And you think I have the answers to that?" Clint asked, momentarily confused.
"Someone has to. Sure," Tony said. "Why not?"
"Why not?" Clint laughed. "Man... I can't even... You are either seriously overestimating me or underestimating me, and I'm not sure which right now. You want to know about SHIELD, ask Fury. Ask Hill. I'm..."
"The hired help?"
"Yeah," Clint shrugged. "More or less."
"From what I've read," Tony said, "it's less like hired and more like indentured."
With that, everyone was talking at once.
"Do we have to do this?" Bruce asked, tapping down his own agitation as he continued to pace the floor. "Is this really the time or the place for this, Tony?"
"You are not here of your own volition?" Thor asked, turning with real concern towards Clint.
Clint began to respond, but found he couldn't. He was kind of at a loss for words upon seeing how sincere Thor was being. Jane, seeing enough of that in his eyes, immediately set about assuring Thor that wasn't the case.
"I actually thought we were just going to have a normal night," Steve shrugged as he tossed his cards on the table.
"I told you this was a bad idea, but you... "Pepper stammered.
"I just want to see what he has to say," Tony returned.
"Why?" Steve barked. "Why bother? What good are you trying to do here?"
"Enough," Natasha barked, loud enough to quiet everyone else in the room. In an instant she was on her feet. "Let's go, Clint."
"Don't worry, Natasha," Tony said after a lengthy pause. "I've still got nothing on you."
"And you never will," Natasha returned smoothly.
"How did you get this?" Clint asked quietly, still in his chair, his fingers tapping out a nervous staccato on the folder in front of him. Natasha, who had been halfway to the door, stopped in her tracks and shook her head in disbelief. "I thought only the highest levels in SHIELD had access to these. That they were encrypted or something."
"I have my ways."
"Is that..." Bruce stammered as he stalked back to the table. "That's not what you told me you were doing. You said you wanted information about programs, not people. I'd have never helped you do this."
"You didn't have to help me find this one," Tony assured him. "It was just there."
"Bullshit," Clint snapped. "Why would my --"
Suddenly, it dawned on him exactly why his file would be out there for anyone to view. Tony had snagged it when he'd unintentionally gone rogue. SHIELD would have wanted everyone to know his strengths and weakness in order to bring him down faster.
"Fury gave that to me," Steve added, not sure if he was helping or hurting at this point.
"Me, too," Bruce said.
"He gave us the edited version," Tony agreed. "The real one was only accessible off their main network."
"Oh, well, that's better," Clint said sarcastically.
The tension in the room grew steadily as the silence between them dragged on.
"This is absurd," Natasha sighed, still a few feet from the door.
"I agree," Bruce added.
"Yeah, well..." Clint shrugged.
"I'm just trying to get a better understand of how SHIELD operates," Tony said with real sincerity.
"You doubt them?" Thor questioned.
"Yes, I do," Tony admitted. "And I'd think that the fact I'd bring up these doubts with two of their agents would speak volumes of how much I trust ---"
"The fact that you even have this," Clint said sharply, holding up the file for emphasis, "speaks volumes of how much you don't. You could of asked me. You could have just asked."
"I told you," Pepper mumbled.
"I have asked," Tony countered, looking pointedly at Natasha.
"Leave her out of this," Clint said, and for the first time he sounded really angry. "This is between me and you right now."
"Don't bother, Clint," Natasha said, her words brisk. "You're just playing into his mind games. He's the smartest one here. He's got to make sure we remember that."
"I would actually not be able to claim that honor," Tony retorted, slipping back into his usual smug tone. "I believe Doctor Banner has me beat by a smidge, but I will gladly accept the title of second smartest person in the room, if I must."
"Tony," Steve said, using the word like a warning.
"Would you like to add something, Captain?"
"Yes, I would," Steve admitted. "You don't trust SHIELD. Got it. I agree, some of the things they've done are shady. But you're being unfair."
"No, I'm being completely fair," he objected. "They know everything about us, probably down to the color of our underwear, but their secrets are off limit. Why's that?"
Clint shifted in his chair, but Natasha didn't even blink.
"If we're going to be a team, there can't be any secrets," Tony continued sincerely. "We have to know one another better than we know ourselves."
"Tony," Bruce argued, "you can't force someone --"
"Read it," Clint interrupted, tossing the file back onto the center of the table, causing some of the contents to slip out.
"Clint," Bruce began to say, but this time the door slamming shut cut him short.
Natasha had left.