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Up a winding stair

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The problem with having an Artificial Intelligence run a security system was just that - it was intelligent, and that meant it was capable of manipulation. A system incapable of rational thought would never be susceptible to social engineering.

Peter Parker had spent several weeks slowly edging his way into JARVIS’ good graces, and now, on the night the Avengers were all at a charity event, he was making his move.

It wasn’t like he had any nefarious purpose. He just wanted to break into Stark Tower and see what he could dig up about the Avengers. It was self-protection, really.

Okay, it was also to prove to himself that he could.

He slung a web to the helicopter landing platform - which was a frankly ridiculous thing to have on a personal residence slash lab slash office tower - and landed on his feet silently. "All right, JARVIS, I'm at the door. Let me in."

He thought for a second something must have gone wrong with his headset, but then he heard a soft click as the door unlocked. "Thanks, bro."

"You are welcome, sir."

The lights were out, but they came on at low brightness as Peter entered the room. He winced. "JARVIS, a little less light, please?"

"Of course, sir."

The lights dimmed into nothing. Peter consulted the Tower blueprints, and decided to start with the rec-room. His feet made no sound as he padded across the room, adding an aura of eerie silence to the room.

When he reached the rec-room, he was shocked into speechlessness. He was pretty certain he'd been to cinemas with smaller screens than the television that occupied the far wall, and he knew the sound system cost more than most people's annual salary.

Maybe Peter did want to join the Avengers. His price was apparently a crapload of very expensive entertainment gear.

There was a soft ping from the elevator in the corner of the room, and Peter froze. He slung a web up to the ceiling and flattened himself against it, barely even breathing.

A man walked out of the elevator, the lights obediently rising to greet him. He walked to the kitchenette and filled a kettle with water from the tap with a distracted air.

After a moment, the man cleared his throat. "You may as well come down," he said. "I know you're there."

Peter didn't move a muscle.

The man looked faintly amused. "No, I don't think I'd fall for that one, either." He looked directly at Peter and gave him a wry smile. "Is this you accepting or refusing Captain America's offer to come to the Tower and meet the team?"

By rights Peter should be making a break for the window. Instead, he let himself down from the ceiling.

"You're not calling the police?" he said dubiously. He couldn't hear any sirens.

The man shrugs. "Tony Stark wouldn't want the police getting their grubby footprints all over the tower." He reached for the kettle. "Did you want some tea?"

"No, thank you," said Peter automatically. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "You know Captain America talked to me?"

The man nodded. "And we knew you'd probably be making your move tonight, although if JARVIS hadn't told me to come up here I probably would have missed it."

"JARVIS!" Peter squeaked, feeling betrayed.

"Apologies, sir. Mr Stark does take priority in my affections," said the clipped English voice, from somewhere in the vicinity of the ceiling.

"For what it's worth, Mr Stark was pretty impressed with you managing to get in to speak to JARVIS in the first place." His gaze flickered up to where some of Peter's webbing was still attached to the ceiling. "Do you make it yourself? Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems to be synthetic, or possibly genetically engineered. It's not a known substance."

Peter bit his tongue.

"If you tell me it's genetically engineered Tony will owe me fifty bucks," the man said hopefully.

"Who are you?" said Peter, because he hadn't missed that slip and whoever this guy was, he was on a first name basis with Tony Stark and said "we" when he was talking about the Avengers.

There was a moment's hesitation. "Bruce Banner. I'm a biophysicist, among other things."

The name was vaguely familiar, but it took him a moment to place it. He'd spent a lot of time reading up about radiation mutation recently. "Banner... Not the Bruce Banner who did all that research on gamma radiation and mutation in human-- HOLY SHIT."

Banner took a step back and glanced over his own shoulder, startled.

"You're the Hulk!" he squeaked.

Another pause. "Only if you make me really angry," said Banner, pushing his glasses further up his nose.

Peter stared at him for a moment. "But then why aren't you at the charity do?"

"I wasn't invited." Banner shrugged.

The television screen behind Peter burst into life by way of a live news stream, audio commentary playing at a slightly muted tone.

"Excuse the interruption, sirs," came JARVIS' clipped tones. "I thought you should see this."

After a moment, Peter recognised the function centre, quickly followed by recognition of Iron Man's distinctive red and gold, blasting a robot into smithereens. The footage switched to showing Captain America smashing robots with his shield, then Hawkeye perched high on a pillar, bow cocked.

"Doom Bots?" said Banner, sounding pained. "Really?"

The footage changed to a completely different building that looked like a university of some sort. A vaguely-humanoid robot reached through the window and pulled out some screaming humans, storing them in a chest cavity before it reached in again.

"With the Avengers fighting robots on the other side of the city, who is going to help these poor people?" asked the newscaster.

"I've told JARVIS to get the Quinjet ready," came an unfamiliar female voice. "You ready, Doctor?"

Peter spun. "Where did you come from?" he yelped.

The Black Widow cocked an eyebrow at him.

"She's been here the whole time," said Banner, completely deadpan. "You didn't notice?"

Peter hesitated. "That's a joke, right? Ha ha, very funny?"

Banner just smiled, taking his glasses off and slid them into his shirt pocket.

Peter turned back to Black Widow. "We should be friends. Spider solidarity."

"I thought the Black Widow ate other spiders," said Banner thoughtfully.

"Are you coming?" asked Black Widow.

It took a second to realise she meant was he coming to fight the giant robot. "Hell yes!"

She set off without acknowledgement, and he hurried to catch up. She led him to the helipad, where the Avengers' signature jet was waiting. (Where it hadn't been earlier. What the hell.)

The door opened as they approached.

"Take a seat," said Black Widow, waving at the bucket seats. "I recommend using the belt unless you have very good balance."  She sat down at the controls and the engines rumbled to life.

The skyline of New York City rushed past the front windscreen at a rather alarming rate. The Avengers seriously had all the toys.

"JARVIS, where do you put our target at?"

"North North West," said JARVIS. "I suspect it may be heading for Canada and over the poles. It's capable of considerable speed." The jet abruptly changed direction and Peter had to cling to the handrails to keep sitting up.

They caught up with the robot somewhere in the wilds of Ontario, galloping on all fours.

Banner took off his shirt and pants, leaving himself dressed only in what appeared to be purple spandex shorts.

"Spider-Man, you're in charge of keeping the people alive and getting them out of harm's way," said Black Widow. "Bruce, just... slow it down as best you can."

Peter blinked. "Uh, no offense, but I'm not the one who can rip solid metal apart like paper."

Banner winced minutely. "The other guy, he's not so great at... consequences. He'll follow the plan as he understands it, but if the situation changes, he's more likely to go with what's the most fun rather than what's going to keep everyone safe."

"But aren't you the Hulk?"

"In a manner of speaking." Banner was silent for a moment. "You know that part of you that wishes you could stop worrying about other people and just break things until you feel better -- throw a tantrum like a five year old? That's the Hulk."

"Huh," said Peter. "I can't decide if that's terrifying or tempting."

"Mostly terrifying," admitted Banner. "You ready?" He pressed a button and the side of the jet slid open, revealing a drop to the ground that suddenly felt very tall.

"No," said Peter. "Let's kick butt anyway."

Banner gave him a slightly incredulous smile, then stepped out of the jet. Peter yelped and ran to the edge after him.

Peter suddenly had an appreciation for how big the robot on the ground was, because the Hulk was huge but still managed to barely come up to the thing's knee.

"I'm really not sure I'm the best person for this job," he yelled over the sound of rushing wind.

"Do you know how to fly this jet?" asked Black Widow pointedly. "Sling a web to the thing and tell me what you find. JARVIS has hooked me into your comms."

That was the last time he was hacking up Starktech, Peter decided. From now on, he was making his own gear.

Peter took a deep breath and aimed for the giant robot. It was flailing wildly, the Hulk having grabbed onto one of its legs with apparent intention to lift it in the air and slam it against the ground. The size difference made the tactic unlikely to succeed, but it wouldn't bode well for the captured scientists if it did.

He shot for the head and jumped off the jet the second the web made contact. He clung to back of the robot's head for a moment, but it didn't seem to react to his presence. "I'm climbing down to the chest cavity now," he said out loud, hoping the comms would pick up on it.

"Acknowledged," said Black Widow in his ear.

The Hulk gave up on trying to lift the robot and punched out its knee. It listed dangerously to the side while Peter carefully made his way around to the chest.

There was no obvious button or lever to open the chest cavity. "Seriously?" said Peter, banging it a few times with his hand for good measure. "No manual override? That's terrible UI."

"I suggest you try the panel on the other side, sir," said JARVIS. "My scans indicate there may be a handle concealed beneath it."

Peter shrugged, and slung a web to swing around to the other side of the chest cavity. He flipped open the panel and twisted the lever. The cover retracted and he quickly spun a web across the opening to prevent anyone from falling out.

The scientists appeared to be unconscious, and he could smell the remains of something in the air. "Knockout gas," he said.

"Stay back until it airs out," ordered Black Widow.

The Hulk took out the robot's other leg and Peter briefly lost his grip on the metal siding as the robot pitched forwards. Dangling below the chest cavity by a thread, he had just enough time to panic about being crushed beneath the robot before the it caught itself on its massive arms. The Hulk roared a challenge, and Peter felt goosebumps prickle all the way up his arms.

He climbed back up to the chest cavity. "There are ten people here, all unconscious. Can you keep the jet still long enough for me to carry them up?"

"If Hulk can keep the robot from moving," said Natasha acidly.

Assuming that was a complicated way of saying "sort of", Peter picked up the nearest scientist and slung her over his shoulder. He slung a web at the jet and swarmed up to it. Black Widow was waiting at the open door to help him strap the scientist in.

"Who's piloting the jet?" he asked, out of morbid curiosity.

"It has a hover mode."

They had two more scientists secured when the rest of the Avengers arrived. With Iron Man and Thor on the job, Peter was largely superfluous. He wondered what the best way was to become invisible before he had to talk to Tony Stark.

He was still trying to figure that out when he was back at Stark Tower, in the middle of an Avengers post-battle briefing-and-celebration that involved Stark offering everybody alcohol while Captain America tried to obtain a coherent account of what, exactly, happened.

Banner had passed out on the couch, but since none of the others seemed worried Peter assumed it was normal.

"Are you legal to drink, kid?" Stark asked Peter.

"N-no," said Peter, cursing inwardly. He'd almost made it to the balcony this time. He could see dawn starting to light up the sky, and he really, really needed to get home.

Stark's brows rose. "You design those web shooters yourself? You know, Bruce and I have a bet going on about those. He says they have to be genetically engineered based on the composition, but I say--"

"Fifth amendment!" Peter yelped.

"You're not under arrest, son," said Captain America. "In fact, we owe you one."

Peter looked at him dubiously. "I don't want to join the Avengers," he said. "You're a team, and I-- I work better alone."

Captain America smiled. He probably thought it was a reassuring smile, but it made Peter feel like he was talking to his guidance counsellor. "I can respect that. But do you mind if we keep you in reserve? In case of giant robots and the like."

"I guess that would be okay," Peter mumbled.

Stark threw something at him, and Peter snatched it out of the air without thinking.

"Avengers communicator," said Stark. "I'm sure you can figure out some way to get it into your systems. Ask JARVIS for help if you get stuck."

"You're still letting me access JARVIS?"

"JARVIS is letting you access JARVIS," said Stark, waving a hand dismissively. "Don't worry, you can't get into anything I don't want you to." He turned back to the bar. "Barton, what are you drinking?"

"If you wanted to continue sneaking out, I can keep them from noticing," murmured Black Widow, suddenly appearing at his left side.

Peter glanced over, startled.

"You clearly have somewhere else to be," she said. "These guys wouldn't know a secret identity if it bit them."

"Thanks," he mumbled.

"Spider solidarity," she said. "But don't ask me to fist bump."

Peter retracted his fist.

She stalked back into the centre of the room. "Clint, did I really see you showing off for the news cameras tonight? I expect that out of the others, but you?"

Once all attention was on her, Peter made for the balcony and the urban jungle of early morning New York City.

By his calculations he had enough time for about two hours sleep before his alarm went off.

Next time he broke into Stark Tower, he decided, it would not be on a school night.