Brooding 21

While the couple disappeared off the monitor into the bathroom (which did not have any hidden cameras, much to Tony’s dismay), Maria offered to show Frigga to her room to freshen up before dinner. Frigga told Tony with a knowing smile that it was useless to hope for a peep show from her quarters, in not so many words, and casually informed Fury that his Midgardian devices would not work if she did not wish it. Fury acknowledged this with a mute inclination of his head as the Queen left the command center with Maria. Tony decided to take the opportunity to work out some of the ideas spawned by his conversations with Frigga, using the facility’s lab.

Bruce sauntered out into the hallway thinking to take a walk. He wanted to clear his head after being bombarded with so much unexpected information and visual input, and the beer and champagne he had imbibed earlier was not helping him now.

“Dr. Banner!” came Steve’s voice from behind him, so he stopped to wait for the other man to catch up. “I was hoping to pick your brain, if you don’t mind.”

“Ah… what about?”

“About those… pheromones,” Steve said, pronouncing the word carefully. “You obviously know more about them than I do.”

“Well, I did study biochemistry,” Bruce replied with a modest shrug. “What about them?”

“What exactly do they do? You said humans are affected by them; how?”

“In a lot of different ways,” he answered, slowly walking down the corridor with Steve falling into step beside him. “We know that in the animal kingdom, pheromones are used as signals to indicate a readiness for mating or to mark territory – like canines do with urine. Swarm insects like ants can leave a trail to food, and bees can send an alarm through the entire hive in seconds by secreting a specific pheromone. Obviously, human beings aren’t as attuned to scents as those creatures, but we are affected by them – sometimes subconsciously. Women who live in a communal environment often notice that their ovulation cycles become synchronized. Men might be picking up on trace scents to tell them if women are more likely to mate with them… although that’s not been definitively proven yet. Still, the arguments are there, and knowing how it affects other mammals, there’s a strong case for it.”

Steve digested this information. “So you’re saying that there’s not a lot of conclusive evidence, but… it’s likely that they do affect us?”

“I would have to say so, yes. Why?”

“I was just wondering… if they can impair someone’s judgment. If, for instance, someone is putting out thirty times the normal level of them…”

“You’re worried that Clint is being affected,” Bruce stated, finally understanding Steve’s concern. “You’re worried that he only thinks he’s in love with Loki because the pheromones are driving him crazy.”

“Something like that,” Steve answered with a nod. “Is it possible?”

“Possible? …Yes.”

They came to an intersection so Bruce halted, then took the passage leading to the main bank of elevators.

“That high of a concentration would have to affect someone much more strongly than the usual faint amounts we send out,” Bruce continued. “Whether it would be enough to actually impair someone’s judgment… that’s hard to say.” Reaching the elevators, he pushed the button and entered the first door that opened. “I’m going above ground; I need some fresh air after everything that’s happened today. Care to join me?”

“I could use some fresh air myself,” Steve said, entering the elevator. “So… how would you be able to tell if it’s affecting someone to the point where they’re making bad decisions based on… what they’re feeling, subconsciously, from being affected by the pheromones?”

“I don’t think there’s a litmus test for that. And since individuals are affected differently by it – our degree of sensitivity to it as well as the amount of influence it has on our decision-making process is vastly different – it would be a subjective assessment at best. At this point, there’s really no way for us to know.” Bruce thought for a moment and added, “Queen Frigga might be able to give you a better answer. Asgardian science is light-years ahead of ours, and she seemed to have a more… tangible grasp on the subject.”

“Yes. But whether she would be forthcoming with the information is another matter,” Steve pointed out. “Loki is her son, after all, and she seems to like the idea of Clint being with him.”

“She wants her kid to be happy… Can’t say that I blame her,” Bruce said as he stepped out of the elevator onto the observation deck. The sun was just setting in a bright golden glow, with a pale half-moon visible overhead and a few stars beginning to shine in the east. Bruce walked over to the guard rail and bent over to lean on it with his arms crossed; Steve followed and gripped the top rail.

“I guess I’m worried because this is all happening so fast,” Steve said after taking in a deep draught of the cool, clean air. “I can see where Clint would want to take care of the baby, of course, but… I don’t understand how he can truly be in love with Loki – the man who captured him and made him betray everything he believes in.”

“That is a mind-bender, isn’t it?” Bruce agreed. “When he jumped over the table to get at Loki, I thought he was going to strangle him and cause an intergalactic incident. I didn’t expect him at all to… kiss him.”

“Exactly.” Steve watched an airplane, a tiny dot far above them, speeding away to its destination. “I think we should at least tell Clint about Loki’s pheromones, so he realizes that he might be influenced by them.”

“We could. I’m not sure it would do any good if he’s as far gone as he seems.” Bruce straightened and turned to lean his backside against the railing, facing Steve. “In the end, Cap, love might be just a collection of chemicals; our attraction to other people might be affected more by chemistry than anything else. Right now Loki may have an unfair advantage over… other people,” he amended, faltering as he almost mentioned Natasha by name, “but who’s to say that’s not real love?”

“It sounds so… scientific and… cold… when you put it that way,” Steve confessed, making Bruce smile.

“You’re a romantic, then?”

“…I suppose I am.”

“Well, just because we can explain how attraction works… doesn’t make it any less amazing, or miraculous, when it spontaneously happens.”

“Oh,” Steve said, surprised by Bruce’s remark. He considered it, then nodded. “I guess knowing how a flower grows doesn’t detract from its beauty.”

“Right. Or anything else. Like the beauty of a sunset: I know it’s caused by atmospheric particles – dust and pollutants, if you come down to it – but I can still appreciate the colors.”

“Careful, Doctor,” Steve warned with a grin. “You’re beginning to sound like a romantic yourself.”

“Well, I… I suppose I am,” Bruce admitted with an answering grin. “But the scientific side of me did notice that nobody else in the room felt compelled to kiss Loki… so maybe their attraction runs deeper than pheromones, after all.”

“Oh!” Steve said, startled by the thought. “You’re right… nobody else felt that kind of attraction towards Loki. And Clint had been separated from him all this time.” He smiled in relief. “Maybe there is something more than chemicals making him act that way.”

“I think so… at least I hope so.” Bruce’s smile turned somewhat ironic as he added, “If pheromones affected us that dramatically, I’d be getting kissed all the time – even by perfect strangers – if the cloud Queen Frigga showed me is real.”

“Hm… I wouldn’t be far behind you,” Steve said, “although I’m not sure I want to be kissed by strangers.”

Bruce laughed. “No, I wouldn’t recommend it. Not in this day and age, anyway – too many nasty diseases have spread across the globe.”

“Oh… right. They told me you were doing charity work in India… You must have seen a lot of difficult cases there.”

Bruce nodded soberly. “Yes. What was most frustrating was knowing that there were cures available, even preventative vaccines, but seeing the people still suffering from curable illnesses.”

“Well, I’m sure you helped a lot of people – people who wouldn’t have gotten help if not for you. That’s very admirable.”

Blushing, Bruce turned away and shrugged, “Not really. I was just… trying to atone for my sins… for the damage I had done.”

“You don’t have to atone for something you did when your body was out of your control,” Steve protested, feeling horrified since he had brought up the subject.

“That’s kind of you to say,” Bruce replied with a faint smile, “but regardless of how much control I had or didn’t have at the time, the fact is I hurt a lot of people. And when you have that sort of guilt on your conscience… you have to do something to make up for it. At least, that’s how I feel.”

“That’s because you’re a good man,” Steve said, reaching out to grip Bruce’s shoulder and making him laugh in a self-deprecating way.

“Well, I try to be, if that counts for anything.” Bruce noticed that Steve had stepped closer to him – invading his personal space, as it were – which made him feel slightly uneasy and uncomfortable. He coughed to dispel his own awkwardness and stood up. “I think it must be about time for dinner.”

“That sounds good. Shall we?” Steve asked with a charming smile, and Bruce nodded and followed him back into the elevator.

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