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What's Good for the Goose

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The year Bucky turned seven, he met Steve Rogers and got his soulmark. This was not a coincidence.

Bucky met Steve while he was taking a shortcut through a back alley walking home from school. This wasn't a coincidence either. Steve and back alleys were already well known to each other at this point. Bucky showing up just as the smaller and younger boy was getting the crap beat out of him was far more of an inevitability than anything fateful or serendipitous. As was Bucky dropping his books and throwing himself into the fray, on the rightful assumption that the three much larger boys were the bad guys.

"Run!" he shouted at the little kid, who couldn't've been more than five, in the glimpse Bucky got of him before he was too busy defending himself to pay more attention. Bucky's daddy had been teaching him how to box since he was six, but three against one were bad odds for anyone. And the little kid wasn't running.

Nope. The little kid, who already had a big red circle on his cheek that was going to be one hell of a bruise, pulled his tiny, angry self to his tiny, angry feet and tried to tackle one of the three boys. He ended up dangling off his back like an enraged monkey, then shaken back to the grimy pavement.

The little kid ended up gasping on the ground, leaving Bucky unable to implement Plan A, which had been to get in a few good licks then get the hell out of there while the getting was good. Now the getting was very, very bad, and Bucky was all alone against three boys who seemed to get bigger and nastier the longer they fought him.

Bucky already had a bloody nose and a sore stomach. His daddy taught him how to take a hit, but George Barnes always went very, very easy on him, something that in retrospect might have given his only son a dangerously elevated sense of confidence. Confidence that was rapidly eroding now that he'd been backed against the wall and wasn't sure he'd get home with all his teeth.

And that was when the goose showed up.

We all have soulmates, and every soulmate pair shares an animal guide. The Guide is there to lead you to your One True Love, and they represent the aspects of the psyche that you both share. They appear when you're about to meet your soulmate, and often materialize in moments of great personal crisis, offering hope and support. There are stories upon stories about how someone's Guide appeared to lead them to their One True, or how the barest glimpse of their Guide eased their hearts and gave them hope in the midst of despair. The newly-rescued almost always attribute their Guide with giving them the strength and courage to hang on.

Animal Guides are ephemeral, ethereal, and elusive. They are, most often, no more than a warm presence or flicker out of the corner of one's eye. They are incarnate symbols of perseverance, optimism and hope. Foretellers of happiness, and the grand destiny of love.

Except for geese. Geese are assholes.

The goose that appeared out of nowhere was big and white, with a beak and feet that were bright orange. The most remarkable thing about it was being a goose in a back alley in Brooklyn, though at that moment Bucky had three bigger things to worry about. Until the goose hissed like a kettle boiling the blood of its enemies and launched itself at the boys.

It hadn't looked nearly so big or formidable before. But with its wings spread and feet scrabbling and beak pecking like a bright orange dagger, the goose resembled an angel of death honking in rage like the horns of Jericho. Even Bucky was terrified, and it was apparently on his side. Bucky's assailants screamed and ran.

The goose chased them to the end of the alley, honking and flaring its wings. When it was satisfied that the boys were gone, it ruffled its feathers and waddled back, looking pleased with itself. It stopped in front of Bucky, tilting its head to gaze up at him with one sky blue eye. A little threateningly, Bucky thought.

Then the goose leapt up and bit him on the arm.

"Ow!" Bucky kicked at the goose, but she (the goose was a girl) sidestepped like a prize fighter and then threw herself at him just like she did with the boys. She pecked at him and clawed his shirt and beat her wings like she was trying to box Bucky's ears. Bucky ended up with his back against the same wall and his forearms crossed desperately in front of his face, screaming for help.

An empty can hit the wall about three feet from Bucky's head. "Hey! Leave him alone!" the little kid yelled. He picked up another can and threw it. This one hit Bucky's shin. But it got the goose's attention.

The goose dropped to the pavement, and ran-waddled at the little kid, who stood there like he was so scared he'd forgotten how to run. She honked at him and pecked his knee right under the hem of his shorts, making the little kid yelp too. Then she waddled to the mouth of the alley, hissing over her shoulder for good measure, and vanished.

"What was that?" The little kid rubbed his leg, which was red as his face and would probably bruise just as spectacularly. He looked at Bucky. "Why'd it attack you?"

Bucky stared at the place the goose wasn't. "Dunno," he said, still stunned. "Either 'cause I didn't win, or 'cause I was dumb enough to get into a fight in the first place. Or both. I think it was both." He looked down at his body: his ripped shirt and the bloody spots and smugly-spreading bruises. The peck on his arm hurt the worst. It was already turning dark, kind of taking the shape of a bird.

"That's not fair!" the little kid said hotly. He probably did everything hotly, Bucky thought. He probably had a fever all the time. Maybe that was why he was so pale and angry. "How can it be mad at you for both? It has to be one or the other! And how could it expect you to win against three guys like that?"

Bucky shrugged. "I don't know. But that's what she told me."

The little kid wiped the blood off his split lip, then looked at the empty alley mouth. "That's your Guide, isn't it?"

"I think so," Bucky said. The bruise looked a lot like a goose.

"Then you're in trouble," Steve said.

"Uh-huh." Bucky rubbed his bruise again. Definitely a goose. He was in so much trouble. "My name's Bucky."

"Hi, Bucky. I'm Steve," Steve said. "Sorry about your Guide."

"Thanks," Bucky said faintly. His bruise was taking on an outline. He could see the goose's features now. It was glaring at him. "I'd better get home. Mom's gonna have a fit."

"Yeah. Your clothes are ruined," Steve said.

"I meant about my Guide," Bucky said.

Tony Stark turned five the year he got his soulmark. He didn't see his Guide when it happened, though, because he was hiding in the back of his parent's walk-in closet in the dark. He was hiding in the dark because his father–who was drunk—managed not only to express no interest whatsoever in the kludgy yet remarkably sophisticated robot Tony had made for him, but also to miss Tony's small hands when he gave it back so that it fell on the floor.

Naturally, as with most childhood tragedies, the robot broke. Howard Stark slurred an apology and went back to swearing at his whiskey-stained blueprint. Five year old Tony gathered up the mortal remains of his hours of labor and fled.

So, when he got his soulmark he was in the back of the overly-large closet, curled up between his mother's mink and raccoon fur coats, clutching the pieces of his robot and weeping in desolation.

The closet was carpeted, so he didn't hear the smacksmacksmack of the goose's webbed feet, and he was sobbing far too loudly to hear the quiet, querulous honking. But he certainly felt the swift, unforgiving peck on his arm.

Tony screamed, dropped the robot parts and fled, unsurprisingly assuming he'd just been bitten by a crocodile. He slammed the closet door behind him and bolted out of the bedroom, slamming that door shut too. He ran back to his own room, then slammed that door and locked it.

Feeling reasonably safe for the time being, he wiped his eyes and nose, then examined his brand new wound. It was a large, dark bruise on the inside of his right forearm that looked kind of like a duck. He thought maybe the neck was too long, but Tony hadn't seen many ducks so he wasn't sure. He pressed it experimentally, giving a small 'ouch!' when it still hurt. But it made him remember something he'd ignored in his mad, crocodile-fleeing panic.

Whatever bit him was mad at him, because he ran away and hid in the closet. She was also mad at him for building a robot that was so easy to break. And he should have faced the crocodile instead of running from that too. He ran away too much.

Well, that got Tony mad. He didn't run away! He was brave! He wasn't going to let any stupid closet-crocodile voice boss him around. He was going to find that crocodile and hit it on the nose! And then he was going to make the best robot ever, one that would never break and do whatever he wanted.

There was, of course, no crocodile in the closet. But Tony was able to scoop up his scattered robot bits before his mom found them and got mad at him for going into her bedroom. He took it back to his own room and dumped it on the floor, then sat down and grabbed the tool set Jarvis gave him for his birthday. And he started building the best robot ever.

"Oh, man. You're going to be trouble, aren't you?"

Tony was 14, and sprawled on his tiny bed in the tiny dorm room he nonetheless had to share. Apparently with the good-looking black guy who was grinning at him as he hauled in a duffel bag to let it thump down on the other bed.

"What do you mean?" Tony sat up, offended. Almost everyone said something like that to him when they saw his mark, and he was sick of it. He'd only just got to M.I.T. What the hell could he have done already? It'd even been a couple days since he'd been woken up by being pecked in the middle of the night.

When he was still in boarding school, the other boys thought it was hilarious every time Tony showed up to class with new bruises on his arm. They said he was trouble too, just like his teachers. Tony pretended he didn't care what they thought, but really he hated it. So he tried not to get bruises and wore long sleeves a lot.

It was hot outside today, though, so he'd worn a tee-shirt. But he hadn't done anything yet. He'd just moved in. So, what the hell was his new roommate talking about?

"You got a goose," the black guy said like everyone did, as if that actually explained it. He shook his head, still smiling like when he came in. "I'm in for it, aren't I?" He sounded fondly resigned. He stuck out his hand. "James Rhodes."

"Tony Stark." Tony crossed his arms, scowling. "And I haven't done anything yet."

That made James laugh. He didn't seem to care that Tony hadn't reciprocated the handshake. "I'm not sure if that's a threat or a promise." He sat down next to his duffel on his bed with a sigh. "So, you're in engineering too?"

That was obvious, since they were in the same dorm and everything. "What's wrong with geese?" Tony demanded. "Everyone always says that, but I don't do anything!" His goose wouldn't let him, but that was beside the point. He rubbed the goose image on his forearm, hyperaware of it now.

James blinked at him. "You don't know? Oh, man. How could you not know? Didn't anyone tell you when your mark showed up?'

"Of course I was told." Edwin and Ana Jarvis had, but he'd been little and didn't really remember what they said. He'd been a lot more interested in their matching garter-snake Guides. "They're the Guides for people who are going to do big things when they grow up. Like run companies. Which I am. So, why the fuck does everyone tell me I'm so bad all the time?"

"I didn't mean you," James said. He kept blinking. "Hasn't your goose ever attacked you?"

"What the hell are you talking about?" Now Tony was offended on his goose's behalf. "Of course not! She's my Guide! The worst is, like, she'll wake me up at night by biting me if I've done something stupid. Couple pecks at most. Maybe three. Or she pulls my hair. But that's it! I've never even seen her."

"Seriously? Wow." James looked impressed, which also made no sense. "My best friend has a goose too. Canada goose, though, not like yours," he added just when Tony was getting his hopes up. "I met her in middle school. Her goose appeared every single day at recess. Fucking thing attacked anyone who even looked at her funny, then attacked her for not defending herself. He even pecked me a couple times for no reason. She almost got expelled because of that fucking thing. Geese are assholes." He frowned. "You've really never even seen yours?"

"Nope." Tony shook his head. "She always comes when I'm asleep, then pecks me and disappears. I thought all Guides did that."

"No guides do that. Except geese." James pulled up the sleeve of his M.I.T. sweatshirt, showing his soulmark. It was an extremely lifelike image of a swan. It looked like it was smiling. "See my swan? Never appeared, never pecked me…I figure I'll see it when I meet my One True, and that'll be it."

"You got a swan?"

James rolled his eyes. "Yeah, I've got a swan. Swans are smart and loyal, and dangerous as fuck when they're protecting their nests. They mate for life. And they fly." He grinned again: big and broad and handsome as hell, and more optimistic than Tony had ever felt. "Not bad for a future pilot, right? So, don't knock the swan."

"Sorry," Tony muttered, staring glumly at his goose. All he knew about geese was that they lived on farms, had painful bites and used to be eaten at Christmas. And how everyone kept telling him that geese Guides sucked donkey balls. "Wish I had a swan."

"Hey, geese mate for life too, did you know that?" James said, voice gentler now. "They do," he affirmed when Tony shook his head. "And they're really dangerous too—which you already know. So, geese are pretty cool."

Tony shrugged again. "They can't fly."

"Some of them can. Canada geese migrate every winter."

"I have a barn goose," Tony said glumly.

"Well, that doesn't mean you won't fly yourself someday." James got up, came over to sit beside Tony and put his arm around Tony's shoulders. "Know what else? Geese are part of the same biological family as swans, which means we're going to be best friends, I know it."

Tony smirked a little, but he finally raised his head. James was even more handsome up close, and so bright and friendly and nice that it was hard to look at him. Tony wasn't used to nice anymore. Edwin and Ana had been nice, but that was a long time ago. "You said geese are assholes."

"They are," James said easily. "Doesn't mean you have to be one." He gave Tony a squeeze on his shoulder and a little shake then let go and stood, stretching. "Awright! Since we're going to be buddies, and you've obviously got the lay of the place, how about you show me around and then we can maybe get something to eat?"

"Okay." Tony was still a little wary, but it was better than staring up at the ceiling anyway. And he had to admit he definitely wouldn't mind a friend, or even someone who tolerated him. He'd already gotten some side-eyes at how much younger he obviously was, not to mention any time he mentioned his name. But James didn't seem to care about either of those things. And despite what he'd just said, Tony having a goose Guide didn't seem to bother him.

So, yeah. Maybe they could be friends. That'd be kind of awesome.

Tony stood up as well, then scuffed over to where he'd kicked off his sneakers. "What happened to your friend?"

"She's at the Air Force Academy." James grinned again. "Her name's Carol Danvers. You should meet her. I think you two would get along."

Late that night, Tony was woken up by Rhodey yelping in pain when the goose pecked him. She pecked Tony right afterwards, of course, but she did let him know she approved of his taste in friends.

Bucky's (motherfucking, vicious asshole) goose showed up a lot, after that first time in the alley. Mostly when Bucky finished the fights Steve started. She always waded in and chased the bullies off, and then always turned around and attacked Bucky right afterwards, whether or not he won.

She kept telling him he had to do better, so Bucky got really, really good at boxing. He trained himself to duck and dodge and weave so he hardly got hit; cajoled and pleaded and bribed the other guys in the gym to fight him two and then three on one. They'd all seen his soulmark by then, so Bucky didn't really have to explain.

"Friend of mine, fought a bear one time, so his goose wouldn't come after him," one of the guys who'd agreed to fight Bucky told him while they were wrapping their hands. His Guide was a rabbit. Bucky would've loved a rabbit. "Real perfectionist sons of bitches."

"Yup," Bucky said, not looking at his newest batch of bruises and peck marks. A bear would probably hurt more, he figured, but then again it wouldn't follow you around. It wasn't the attacks so much as the consistency.

Bucky won all his practice fights that night, against three opponents at once. That had to make the inflexible hellbird happy, Bucky thought. Maybe his goose would give him a couple days off from the beatings.

The next morning Bucky was woken up an hour early by his goose yanking on his ear, as if in retaliation for the uncharitable thoughts. All the same, Bucky got a distinct sense of approval along with the pain. At least he was doing something right.

Tony did meet Carol, and they did get along, though not with the house-on-fire immediacy or fervency of him and Rhodey. More like a slow-burning fire pit in the backyard. The Air Force Academy was in Colorado, so she couldn't visit much. But Tony's goose bit her the same night she and Tony met in person. His goose tended to vet all his friends.

Carol couldn't believe that Tony had never actually seen his goose, either.

Rhodey thought his goose was just waiting for the right moment. "Well, she's Tony's Guide, right?" he said, pointing around the glass of Coke in his hand. "You know how he is. She's gotta make a grand entrance to keep his attention."

Tony scowled over the rim of his glass, which was also full of Coke. They were at one of the all-age bars near campus because Rhodey wasn't comfortable with underage drinking. Rhodey wasn't comfortable with breaking rules in general. Tony reminded himself that he normally appreciated that. "I'm not like anything. She's just shy, or something."

Carol smacked a hand over her mouth so she wouldn't snort her drink from laughing. "Oh, my God," she wheezed when she'd swallowed and could speak. "Geese aren't shy, believe me. Geese show up whenever the fuck they want and do whatever the fuck they want. If your goose is in stealth mode, it's definitely because she's got something planned."

Rhodey clapped him on the shoulder, face suffused with amused sympathy. "Looks like you're screwed, buddy."

"Fuck off." Tony couldn't help glancing at his soulmark. There was a yellowing bruise above the goose's head like a thought balloon. She was probably thinking he needed to finish his assignments. "It's not like that. She said she's waiting for the right time."

Carol's eyes widened with a kind of gleeful horror. "She told you that? Oh, Tony. I'm sorry, but you are well and truly screwed. Seriously. I'd settle your affairs now, while you still have time."

"Can I have your car?" Rhodey said.

"I'm not giving either of you anything. I hate you both equally." Tony finished his drink in a long chug, then smacked the empty glass decisively on the table. "I hate you so much I'm going back to my room to work on my physics assignment. You suck more than homework. Congratulations."

Tony didn't mean it, but Rhodey and Carol thought it was hilarious anyway. "You are so goosewhipped," Carol said.

"I prefer to think of it as highly motivated," Tony said primly. He was, and not just because his goose didn't assault him as much when his grades matched his ability. He got 100% so often he barely bothered to look at his marks anymore, but what he really wanted was his father to say he was proud of him. Just once. And maybe for his mom to look like she actually wanted him around.

His goose had attacked him often enough for clinging to false hope. But that was the only kind Tony really knew.

(Carol's Canada goose flew from out of nowhere and attacked her on the way home, then pecked Rhodey and Tony before he disappeared, the way he usually did. Tony bore the pain with the equanimity of sweet, sweet vindication.)

War broke out in Europe in 1939, the year Bucky turned 22. He was routinely fighting off five guys at a time by then, both in the gym and when he had to save Steve from himself.

Steve had finally gotten his soulmark a few months after his 19th birthday, a couple days before his mom died. It was a beautiful black swan (of course it was black. Steve had to be different about everything), and he told Bucky he saw it sitting quietly at the foot of his mother's bed as she passed. His mother's cat (also black, because she was Steve's mom), appeared at her side through her final moments.

Bucky kind of hoped his goose didn't do that, since she'd probably be attacking him.

He'd been a little disappointed that Steve wasn't his soulmate, but just a little. He'd figured for a while that they weren't each other's One True like that. They loved each other, sure—like brothers, or more than brothers—but not like that. Steve liked boys as well as girls, but the one time they tried to kiss Bucky said it was like kissing one of his sisters, and Steve said it was like kissing his mom.

So, love. Not quite soulmates. That was fine. Winifred explained to them that the more similar the Guide animals were, the closer the friendship would be, and geese and swans were so similar it could be hard to tell them apart. One day, she assured them, they'd each find their One True, and their soulmates would be best friends too. That sounded all right to Bucky.

Of course, he needed to make sure the punk survived long enough to find his soulmate first, which wasn't so easy with the way he kept getting sick or getting into fights, or giving away his jackets or what small amount of money he was able to earn. Bucky had known for a long time that his goose wanted him to look out for Steve because their fates were intertwined. Bucky figured that just meant she really liked him. Steve had enough goose-inflicted bruises to prove it.

Bucky, though…. All his goose ever told him was that he had to be good at everything, mostly while she was boxing his ears with her wings. He had to be strong, and tough, and be able to fix things from watches to sewing machines, to hunting rifles to cars. She made him learn Russian and German, teaching himself with the dusty dictionaries in the library. He learned high school level math when he was in grade five, then university level math when he was in grade nine. He asked for a physics textbook for his birthday.

For a long time Bucky figured all the extra schooling was just to impress his soulmate when he found them. When he finally asked, though—to satisfy Steve's curiosity—his Guide said it would make things easier later. But she never told him when 'later' was, or what things would be difficult.

"She probably means the war," Steve said. They were at the kitchen table, the latest headline from the Front screaming its horrors at them.

"Probably," Bucky said. He didn't actually think so, but Steve was so determined to go fight if America entered the war that Bucky didn't want to tell him that. His goose didn't want him anywhere near the front. Hell, she'd scratched the shit out of his legs the one time he seriously thought about it.

The wounds stung, but it was a relief otherwise. Bucky didn't really want to go fight. He didn't want to leave his family, and he especially didn't want to leave Steve behind. He didn't want to die.

America officially entered the war in 1941, and by the time his 25th birthday rolled around, Bucky knew he was going to be a soldier regardless of what he or his goose wanted. He was picked for the draft, and the Army was thrilled to have him.

They weren't so thrilled his Guide was a goose, but there was a war on. They'd take what they could get.

His goose didn't even peck him too badly about it. She seemed resigned, though, like she'd known that the most they'd get was a little extra time.

(About a year later, Steve told him that on the night of the Expo, his swan appeared for a couple seconds outside the recruitment center where he met Erskine. It took a long time for Bucky to forgive Steve's Guide for that.)

Tony was 15 when he found out about Bucky Barnes' Guide.

It wasn't that he'd never heard of the guy, or known his Guide was a goose. Aunt Peggy had told him plenty of stories about her days with the 107th, and Howard gushed almost as much about Steve's bestest buddy as he did about Steve himself, which was saying a fuck of a lot. It was an open secret that Howard had fallen in love with Steve a-la Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Only way more gross, because Tony's dad had helped Erskine change Steve's entire body, not just his accent.

So the fact that plain ol' Bucky Barnes made Howard's eyes light up like Christmas probably meant that he was God's Gift to snipers or something. Or that he and Howard had been fucking, since Howard generally remembered his favorite conquests.

Tony wouldn't have blamed his dad, either. He'd seen the memorial wall at S.H.I.E.L.D. Academy, and Bucky was a total babe. He never asked, though. His dad talked about himself enough as it was.

Howard loved telling Tony about how tough Bucky's goose was, how viciously effective in a fight. He especially loved telling Tony how Bucky's goose constantly urged him to excellence, made him a better man.

The implication was clear enough, especially for a child prodigy like Tony Stark. Howard had two dead war heroes to compare his son to, and of course Tony couldn't get near either of them.

Tony couldn't hate his dad, so he hated the men his father wished he were.

Of course, Peggy had talked about Bucky's goose too. She'd said that Bucky's goose was white. She'd considered it a rather astonishing coincidence, since her Guide was a goose too, but grey. All Tony had really cared about was that Peggy, who loved him more than his own mom and dad, had the same kind of Guide that he did.

Almost the same kind. But sometimes, when Tony was little and lonely and Peggy specifically ditched Howard to spend time with him, Tony liked to pretend it meant she and Daniel were his real parents. It wasn't unheard of for similar Guides to run in families. He liked to tell himself that they'd been forced to give him to Howard because of secret spy reasons, but one day they'd reveal the truth and come to take him home.

He stopped fooling himself with that kind of pathetic, wishful bullshit before he go into M.I.T. But it wasn't until he was fifteen and poking around Rhodey's military history textbooks that he realized Bucky's goose wasn't just another breed with white feathers, the way he'd always assumed. His goose and Bucky's were the exact same kind.

The exact same kind. But that was the only thing Tony had in common with him.

Tony stared at the picture for a long time, then slammed the book shut and hurled it across the room. It hit his desk lamp, sending both the lamp and the book crashing to the floor. He sat down on Rhodey's bed and started crying.

He was still sobbing his guts out when Rhodey came back from class. He said he'd failed a math test when Rhodey asked what was wrong. Tony was sure Rhodey didn't believe him, but he was nice enough to pretend he did.

It wasn't like Tony didn't want to tell him the truth, if only because he knew his fucking goose would bite him that night if he didn't. But how was he supposed to say to his nice, decent, handsome, perfect friend that he'd just found out for real that he'd never be good enough for anything?

If Tony couldn't hold a candle to Barnes even with the exact same breed of Guide, then what hope did he have of holding a candle to anyone? None. None at all, that was what. No wonder his parents treated him like a waste of skin. That's exactly what he was.

That was the year Tony started hiding again, the way he did when he was five. Only he was older now and his closet was the entire fucking world.

He started drinking for real. He tried cocaine and decided he liked it. He lost his virginity at sixteen, to some girl he wouldn't recognize when he met her at a party a week later. He had sex with his first guy a few months after that. He barely remembered it afterwards and didn't give a damn.

His Guide hated it. She let Tony know as often as possible, generally as painfully as she could manage. Tony didn't give a damn about that either.

Why should he? He'd never be good enough, no matter what he did. So he might as well do whatever the fuck he wanted. Better to burn out than to fade away, right? Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse. Not like he had anything else to look forward to.

His soulmate would sure as hell be better off without him.

By the time Tony was 20, he was so good at hiding himself that sometimes he didn't remember who he actually was: the smart-aleck, obnoxious, smug and uncaring asshole? Or the quieter, serious engineer who cared too much about everyone?

Sometimes Rhodey couldn't tell either, which made Tony proud as well as terrified. Rhodey was his fucking north star. If he couldn't pin Tony down, who the hell could?

Tony didn't like thinking about that, so he ignored it. Just like he ignored his Guide and everything else he didn't want to think about.

Carol had her own problems, so she just stayed away from Tony's, which was great. But Rhodey never gave up on him. Even if Tony was sure Rhodey hated him sometimes.

That was fine, since Tony hated himself too.

His goose started coming more often at night, leaving more wounds. She didn't like Tony hiding now any more than she'd liked it when he was five. She hated what he was doing to himself. She said Tony's soulmate would need him. The real him.

Tony covered up the bruises and ignored his Guide. He hadn't met his soulmate yet, and he was pretty sure at this point that he wasn't going to.

Rhodey hadn't met his soulmate yet either, but that was different. Rhodey was a standup, decent human being who deserved better than his lousy goose-guided friend. Tony's own parents didn't even want him. Why would anyone?

His goose naturally tried to convince him otherwise, because she was a stubborn asshole. But hey, Tony was pretty damn stubborn himself. And ignoring things he didn't have a right to believe was just another kind of hiding. And Tony was fucking awesome at that.

The first time Tony Stark saw the goose was in December, 1991, the night after his parents died.

At first, Tony had no idea there was any particular significance to the goose being there, other than, well, the goose being there at all. Specifically, standing on the coffee table with its head cocked and it's vicious, beady blue eyeballs fixed on him.

At first Tony thought it was a hallucination. That made sense, since he'd been drinking ever since the standoffish-yet-sympathetic police officers brought him back from the morgue. He didn't have to go see the bodies, was encouraged not to, in fact. But he had to know.

So, now he knew. He knew for sure that he was an orphan. He knew for sure his father would never love him and his mother would never not be disappointed. Because they were dead. He knew for sure that they died because his father was too drunk to avoid running off the road, and too much of an asshole to avoid drinking before he drove anywhere.

Tony wasn't an asshole. Well, he wasn't that kind of an asshole, so he stayed in the house to drink, thank you very much. And he'd obviously done a bitchin' job of it, because he didn't remember passing out on the couch, or the pool of nearly clear, whiskey-scented vomit on the floor.

And now he was hallucinating fucking geese.

The goose hissed at him, as if it didn't appreciate the epithet.

"You're not real," Tony slurred at it. "So, fuck off. Lemme die in peace."

He didn't want to die, entirely. But he didn't want to live either, so it seemed like a reasonable thing to say.

The goose, however, evidently took grave exception to that, considering how it immediately launched itself at him.

It was also very, very real, considering how astonishingly much it hurt when it beat his head with its flapping wings and scrabbled at him with its claws. It finally occurred to Tony that this was his Guide only when she added the pecking and yanking on his hair. That was definitely familiar.

He didn't know why the hell she'd decided that now was the time for the grand entrance Rhodey had prophesied, but Tony had no energy to spare to wonder about it. He was on his side on the couch, and too drunk to coordinate defending himself. He ended up just scrunching his eyes shut and curling his arms over his face like a child.

"Stop! Stop, please! You're hurting me! Stop hurting me!" Tony started to cry: great, gulping sobs that sounded like screaming. "Please, stop hurting." He didn't even know if he meant the goose, or the universe in general. He'd been in pain for long before his parents died. All the goose was doing was adding a physical component. "Stop it!"

She did.

Tony waited, in case she was just taking a breather, then gingerly opened his eyes and lowered his bleeding arms. His Guide was back on the coffee table, head tilted to let her watch him. She settled her feathers and gave him a small, quiet little bleat that was nothing like her enraged honking. Then she leaned across the space between the table and the couch. Tony flinched, but all the goose did was use her beak to preen his hair.

She kept doing the gentle, ticklish ruffling until Tony relaxed. Then the goose waddled to the end of the table, hopped onto the floor with a smack and looked back at him. She gave him another bleat and went down the hallway, towards Tony's bedroom and ensuite bathroom.

Tony sat up, blearily wiping his eyes and nose on the hem of his damp tee-shirt. He knew the goose wanted him to get up and take a shower, then eat and drink something nutritious and go to bed. That had come through loud and clear during the assault.

"No, thanks." Tony snuffled, wiped his eyes again with the side of his hand. "I just want to be left alone."

The goose hissed at him.

Tony got up.

He did feel better after the shower, and then a lot better after he'd reluctantly followed his Guide back to his suite's kitchen to eat a sandwich and drink a couple glasses of water. He didn't even need her to lead him to his bedroom.

Tony flopped gratefully onto the bed and burrowed under the covers. He was emotionally exhausted, looking forward to not having to think for a few hours.

The goose hopped up onto the bed behind him.

Tony froze, feeling her waddle up the bed. He slowly retracted himself further under the blankets, but he could only go so far without risking suffocation. And he was pretty sure his Guide could just magic herself under the covers anyway.

He was certain he was doomed, but all his Guide did was plop down at his back, then preen his hair again. She was going to keep him company, she told him. Make sure he wasn't alone.

"Thank you," Tony whispered, swallowing back more tears. His Guide was many things, but a comforting presence had never been one of them.

But she stayed: a warm comforting weight at his back, until Tony relaxed and fell asleep.

(She did yank his ear to wake him up at noon, but that kind of thing was so familiar by now that Tony would've been worried if she didn't.)

Geese Guides, it turned out, were fucking aces at fighting a war.

Bucky's Guide appeared so often that pretty soon she didn't bother disappearing again. She stayed by his side at night, marched with him in the morning, and flew at the enemy in a frenzy of white-winged hell whenever the poor bastards were unlucky enough to come close to him. Bullets didn't kill her, just made her disappear for a while. They hurt her, though, just like they hurt anyone. Bucky hated that: having to watch his poor goose crying out in pain or writhing on the ground before she vanished. He wished she wouldn't stick around when the bullets started flying, but it wasn't like he could ever make her do anything she didn't want to. At least she was a difficult target to hit.

She still attacked Bucky whenever she thought he was slacking off—which was nearly always—but Bucky was so used to it he barely minded anymore.

She bit and pecked some of the other guys in his unit too, at least the ones she decided were worth Bucky's time. It got to be a kind of mark of honor, getting attacked by Bucky's goose. That somehow turned into a goose wound being good luck charm, and suddenly the men were lining up to get pecked. Naturally Bucky's Guide started pecking him even more often, as if the whole thing was his fault.

But she stayed, and kept staying. And some days Bucky thought he might even survive this fucking war.

All the same, it scared him sometimes, how hard she was working to keep him alive. He knew that was stupid, that he should just stop worrying and appreciate it. No one else in the 107th got so much as a howdy-do from their Guides unless they were on the ground screaming. Here Bucky was with his very own honking guardian angel, even if she still left him bruised and bloody most of the time.

It was just…. Well, he'd known since he was a kid that Steve, his almost-soulmate needed him. Bucky wasn't going to complain about anything that kept his best friend alive, and if his goose wanted him to get home in one piece for Steve, that was more than fine by him. Especially since Bucky wanted to go home in one piece himself. Of course he did. So did everyone.

But why the hell was Steve so important? And why were his and Bucky's lives that intertwined? Sure, Bucky wanted to be with him forever. He had a stable of daydreams about how they'd live side by side in Brooklyn and their soulmates would be best friends. But his Guide was so damn adamant, it always felt like their future would be much more than that. Like Steve was gonna save the world or something, but only if Bucky helped him do it.

Bucky had no problem thinking that Steve could save the world, with or without him. It was a lot of responsibility, that was all. For both of them. And Steve was so sickly and small, what if Bucky didn't make it back?

And if he didn't make it, what the hell would his soulmate do?

That was the fear Bucky couldn't shake, could barely stop thinking about: How fucked was his soulmate, that his Guide was so desperate to get Bucky to him? Was he another soldier? Was Bucky going to have to rescue him? Would Bucky even survive that? Would his One True?

He'd asked his Guide outright about that, a couple times. Even stuck out his arm with the sleeve rolled up so she could bite him. But if she knew she didn't tell him a damn thing.

She pecked him anyway, but Bucky expected that.

At Azzano, she was shot by one of the Nazis' fucking Buck Rogers ray guns before Bucky could even holler a warning, and his Guide didn't reappear for days. By then the remaining 107th were at Hydra's factory, making weapons.

He and a few other guys almost escaped a couple times, because the goose made such a ruckus for them the guards were distracted. But there were a hell of a lot of guards, and the factory was surrounded by a very tall gate. None of them even got out of the compound.

The guards shot his Guide every time she appeared after that. Pretty soon she only came at night, when the prisoners were left alone for whole minutes at a time. She'd sit in Bucky's lap and nibble at his clothes and hair, and tell him over and over again that he needed to survive. For his soulmate, for Steve, and for himself.

Bucky wasn't too sure he could manage it.

It got colder and Bucky caught pneumonia. He did his best to keep going, pretend nothing was wrong with him, until his fever spiked and he could barely breathe and all his goose's desperate pecking and scrabbling couldn't get him back to his feet when he fell. He was dragged off to the Isolation Ward, with his Guide honking like a car horn and running after him.

They shot her again, and the next time she came back he was strapped to a table. The goose couldn't undo the buckles, so she sat on his legs instead of his chest so he could breathe, and honked at him. She sounded really sad.

They shot her and kept shooting her every time she appeared, and injected Bucky with poison and kept injecting him. His pneumonia got better, but his fever got worse. He was in agony and it wouldn’t stop.

He lost time, though he never knew how much. Sometimes—he thought—it was because of the fever or the pain. He'd sink into a dark place in the center of his skull where he didn't have to feel anything. Sometimes his Guide brought him back, pulling his hair or biting his ear. Sometimes she wasn't there but he came back anyway, because the pain he was in became more than he could escape.

Sometimes, he didn't lose time. It was stolen. He'd always wake up strapped in a chair afterwards, with someone unpeeling metal pieces from around his head.

(A couple times, she'd appear right afterwards, and he didn't recognize her until she bit him. Whatever Hydra did to him, they made him forget he had a Guide. They made him forget he had a soulmate. That was almost more terrifying than the idea of forgetting Steve.)

During the tiny pieces of time when she was with him and he could think, he'd ask her to let Steve and his soulmate know what happened to him, and to say he was sorry.

His Guide sat on his legs and gently pecked his knee through the hole in his pants. She wouldn't tell Steve or his soulmate anything, she told him, because she knew he'd give up if she did. She refused to let him die.

Bucky didn't want to die either. So he held on.

Obie's Guide was a wolf, big and shaggy grey on the inside of his arm. It always scared Tony a little when he was a kid, even though Obie had never been anything but kind to him.

Still, there was always something a little…unctuous about him. A certain smugness, like he knew something you didn't. On the other hand, Tony's dad was just fucking outright smug and arrogant. Maybe that was just how business men were. At least Obie gave Tony the time of day and seemed glad to see him.

Obie was definitely glad to see him only a week after Howard's and Maria's death. He'd been prepared to give Tony much longer, he said. All the time he needed. He'd given Tony a hug that was a little too tight, but hell. He'd lost his best friend when Tony lost his father. If Tony was the hugging type he'd probably be crushing everyone too.

Tony didn't bother to mention that he was there only because his goose had attacked him at o'dark thirty that morning. He'd fallen out of bed trying to get away from her, and then she'd chased him into the kitchen, so he'd had breakfast like a real boy too. He didn't know why the hell his Guide was suddenly so interested in the world of finance and manufacturing, but she kept telling him to pay attention, as if her fucking swarming him would let him pay attention to anything else.

(But her bite of approval when he was well-dressed and ready to go made him happier than he'd admit to anyone.)

So, here he was, scanning quarterly reports and already so bored that throwing himself out a window was looking like a better idea all the time. Obie took his struggle to appear interested as a sign he didn't understand, and Tony didn't know how to tell him he did understand, he just didn't care, without pissing the man off. Normally Tony wouldn't care about that, either. But, well, Obie was family. And if he died in a car accident tomorrow, Tony didn't want his bitchiness to be the last thing between them.

Honestly, he didn't even know what he was there for. He'd paid as much attention as he could while nobly resisting strangling himself with his tie. The company was fine, the shareholders were fine, and their buyers (all legit military, of course) were fine with Stark Industries being fine…. Everything was fine. Great, even. Nothing to see here, move along.

Tony shook Obie's hand, told him to keep up the good work and all that jazz, and walked out of the building feeling like a man freed from prison. And was promptly attacked by his very angry Guide for not, actually, paying attention.

Which was completely and utterly unfair! He'd paid attention to everything. Honestly, he had no idea what that crazy fucking bird wanted from him sometimes. It wasn't as if his dad's company made goose abattoirs. They made weapons for the good guys. So what the hell was her problem?

His Guide bloodied his ear and finally disappeared, leaving his suit in shambles. Well, fuck her. Perfectionist asshole. He didn't need her and he didn't need his soulmate either. He didn't need anyone.

She didn't come back for nearly a month, not even for stealth attacks in the dark. Tony told himself he was happy about it.

Bucky didn't die, because Steve saved him.

They walked together at the front of the phalanx of rescued men, with Bucky's goose waddling happily alongside. Steve told him his swan was responsible for it, how he'd appeared in front of Colonel Phillip's tent the way he'd appeared outside the recruitment center, so Steve would know to go inside. That was how he found out that the 107th had been captured and Bucky was missing.

Howard and Peggy had helped Steve plan the haphazard rescue mission. Howard had flown Steve in on his plane.

Bucky was angry at Steve for volunteering to be a lab rat, and even angrier at his Guide for helping him. He was really fucking pissed at Steve for carrying out this half-cocked plan by himself. But God, Bucky was so happy to see him.

It was a hell of a shock seeing Steve like this, though. He'd gone from a tiny, scrawny sickling to this brawny blond giant. His face was the same—thank God that hadn't changed—but the rest of his body might as well have belonged to someone else. Steve seemed happy with it, though, so Bucky tried to be, too.

It was just, was it too much to ask for one piece of stability in this goddamn chaos? Bucky had just gotten out of hell, and he didn't even know what the fuck that slimy little scientist had done to him. And now his best friend in the world looked like he'd turned into a completely different person. Bucky kept sneaking glimpses of Steve's soulmark, making sure it was still a black swan.

Steve put up with it with the same fond bemusement every time. He hadn't really stopped smiling since he'd pulled Bucky off the table. "I'm still me, Buck. Promise."

Bucky let Steve's sleeve slide back down for the sixth time. "I know." He forced himself to smile, because he did know. Really. It didn't matter what he looked like now. Steve was the same man inside, that was what mattered. It was like he'd finally found the body he was meant to have, to carry his incredible heart—

Bucky burst out laughing, nearly tripped over his own feet before Steve steadied him.

"What's so funny?" Steve asked, grinning.

Steve's smile was definitely the same as always. Bucky wished smiling still came as easy for him. He'd startled the hell out of himself, laughing like that. "'Just realized something," he said, and right then at least it was easy to grin back. "No wonder you have a swan for a Guide. You're the Ugly Duckling."

Steve blinked, then he got it and started laughing too. "Oh my God, you're right. You're exactly right. I loved that story as a kid. Always hoped that'd somehow happen to me."

"Guess it did," Bucky said. "You're like a fairy tale come true."

Steve snorted. "Does that make you Prince Charming?"

"Well, you're pretty as a princess, so why not?" Bucky said.

They both laughed, but Bucky's heart wasn't in it. He sure as hell wasn't a prince. He wasn't sure what he was, anymore. Steve's skin fit him better now than it ever did, but Bucky felt all wrong in his.

His Guide was still happily slapping along beside him, but Bucky didn't even know if his soul was the same.

The goose tilted her head at him, then pecked him right on the ankle bone, hard enough that he felt it even though his boot.

It hurt like fuck, and Bucky had never been so grateful.

Tony knew from the way that Ms. Virginia "Pepper" Potts stalked into his office that he was going to really, really like her. The fact she was there to tell him about a very clever embezzler was just icing on the cake. For a minute or two he almost, kind of, thought his goose might even show up. He hadn't seen her in months, but…Maybe?

His goose didn't show up, not that Tony had actually expected it. It was just self-indulgent, wishful thinking. Pepper wasn't the kind of person who needed a goose. She wasn't an underdog or a legend, or fucked beyond all redemption like him. Tony had only known four other people in his life who merited geese: two had been spies, one was a crazy Air Force pilot, and one was a hero who died before Tony was born.

Besides, Pepper Potts' Guide was a swan. A beautiful, sleek white swan on the inside of her arm. Just like Rhodey's.

"No, Mr. Stark, I am not going to leave my job in accounting to be your personal assistant," she said archly as soon as he made the extremely reasonable suggestion. "I have projects and responsibilities, and I'm not about to drop either just to fulfill one of your passing whims."

Tony grinned. She glowered. God, Rhodey was going to love her. "What if I triple your salary and promise to hire two accountants to replace you?"

She blinked, then waited a beat and blinked again. "I'd need to know what the position entails."

"Awesome." Tony clapped his hands together, rubbing his palms. He'd let her know as soon as he figured it out. He wondered if she liked working on cars. "I'll get a contract made up."

"Good. I'm going to review it carefully first, just so you know." Her impeccable eyebrows arched. "I'm aware of your reputation, Mr. Stark."

That stung a bit. Maybe deservedly so, but still. "No one has ever come to my bed less than willingly. Enthusiastically willingly, in fact," he said soberly, no artifice whatsoever. "I may be an asshole, but I have never coerced or forced anyone into anything."

Maybe she could hear the vehement honesty in his voice, because her sleek eyebrows lowered. "That's very good to know," she said, and her voice sounded entirely different. "I'll leave those files with you. Please contact me if you need any other information." It wasn't anything like an apology, and yet it sounded like one.

"I will definitely contact you if I need any other information," Tony parroted soberly, then did his best to give her a real smile. They came harder and harder these days, unless he was drinking.

Rhodey would tell him he still hadn't dealt with his grief and anger over his parents. Carol would tell him he needed to forgive them so he could forgive himself for not being the perfect child they wanted. Peggy, if she could remember him, would tell him to buck up and move on. Of course, any of them telling him anything depended on him actually talking to them about it. Which he didn't.

His goose would probably have pecked him and told him to stop being such a self-destructive dick, but she barely bothered to show up anymore. Tony figured it was because she'd realized he wasn't going to stop his billionaire playboy lifestyle no matter how often she tried to beat it out of him.

She'd probably given up on him, which made perfect sense. Tony gave up on himself a long time ago.

He watched Ms. Potts as she left, deliberately waiting to speak again until she was just opening the office door. "Oh, Ms. Potts?"

She looked over her shoulder at him, neat ponytail swinging. She even made that look elegant. Rhodey was a lucky, lucky man. "Yes, Mr. Stark?"

"I'd like you to meet a friend of mine," Tony said casually. "I have a feeling you two would get along."

Peggy Carter's Guide was a goose, God help her.

When Bucky met her the first time, with her grey goose clearing a way through the crowd, his heart hit his throat so hard he thought he was going to throw up. But her goose led Peggy in a beeline for Steve, and only pecked absently at Bucky's in passing. And Peggy only had eyes for Steve anyway.

"Different breeds," Monty murmured next to Bucky's ear, and yeah. Sure. Of course he was right. Bucky's goose was white and orange and hers was mostly grey. He figured he and Peggy would get along, both having geese and all, but she wasn't his soulmate. He hadn't survived all that shit at the factory to meet Agent Carter.

He was on his last dregs already, and the wacky mix of relief and disappointment crashing through him just about brought him to his knees. He made sure Steve got his due, then slipped away in the controlled chaos of everyone congratulating him. Bucky knew he'd have to go back later, to tell Phillips his part of their capture and imprisonment, and whatever other information he could actually remember. Which wasn't much.

They'd want him to get checked out by a doc too. Hopefully nothing hinky would show up during his medical exam, or his goose would be cooked.

Hah. Funny.

But that was later. Right now, he was just…done. Twitchy and anxious as hell like he'd pace right out of his fucking wrong-fitting skin if he wasn't so damn tired. He found a nice big tree on the edge of the camp to sit under, and lit a cigarette with hands that shook so badly it was a wonder he didn't set the forest on fire.

His Guide watched him with her sky blue eyes, tilting her head back and forth when he moved. "You gonna beat me already, or what?"

The goose stepped closer, tilted her head a bit more, and then gave him a tiny little peck on his bare forearm, like she was being polite.

"Naw, I ain't jealous." Bucky shook his head, ignoring how it made his ever-present headache slosh like a wave inside his skull. "Steve deserves someone swell like that lookin' at him the way she does. 'Sides." He shrugged, sucked on his cigarette until the tip glowed bright orange in the late afternoon light. "I got my own soulmate, right? No point in getting all goo-goo eyes over anyone who ain't them."

His goose pecked him again, harder this time. Bucky grinned around his cigarette, relaxing a little with the familiarity. "Oh, yeah. Believe me, if she were my One True? I'd probably be on my knees already, begging her to make an honest man outta me. But she's got a goose too, right? So we're practically soulmates anyhow, like me and Steve. It'll be a gas."

Bucky knew he didn't sound like he meant it. He wasn't sure he did. Then again, he wasn't sure of anything except how all he wanted to do was get up and start running, and just keep running until he was finally exhausted enough to curl up somewhere peaceful and sleep for a year.

The goose honked angrily and bit him.

"Hey!" Bucky jerked his arm away. "Fuck you," he said without heat, "I'm not really gonna do it. I don't even think I can fucking stand right now, for Christ's sake. And I know they'll be looking for me." Steve had stuck to him like glue ever since the rescue. Any second the big galoot would stop mooning over the lovely Peggy Carter and notice Bucky wasn't right next to him. Bucky probably should get back before Steve panicked.

He took one last drag and crushed the cigarette butt on the cold ground. Then he sat there, trying to remember how his legs worked and hoping his Guide wouldn't get impatient and attack him.

She honked, loudly, and Bucky figured he was done for, but it was only Steve arriving, with Agent Carter just behind him and her goose waddling beside her and making soft wonkwonkwonk noises.

"There you are!" Steve said, beaming. He'd showered and changed already, wearing a clean uniform with captain's bars and looking strong and handsome as anything. He and Agent Carter made a hell of a swell pair. "What are you doing all the way out here on your lonesome?" His happy grin faded to big-eyed concern. "You okay, Buck?"

"Good Lord, Steven, of course he's not okay," Agent Carter said in her crisp accent. She came closer, crouching impeccably in her uniform skirt. Her grey goose wandered up to Bucky's white one, and they did some kind of goose-greeting ritual that apparently involved a lot of head bobbing. "I think saying you look terrible would be generous, actually. We were looking for you to make sure you got something to eat, and a hot bath."

Both of those things sounded like heaven. Bucky couldn't remember being fed after he was dragged to the Isolation Ward—though he must have been, since he hadn't starved to death—but he knew for sure that he hadn't washed at all since being captured. God, he probably stank like a latrine. He winced. "Yeah, I could use one. I'm sorry, Ma'am. I forgot how bad I smell. We all kinda got used to it."

"I'll overlook it this time, Sergeant," she said, just seriously enough that Bucky knew she was kidding. Then she smiled, and fuck. She was already one of the most beautiful dames he'd ever seen. When she smiled, she was luminous.

Why couldn't her damn goose be white? Or why couldn't she have a black swan instead? She'd be perfect for either of them, and yet none of them had the same Guide. It didn't hardly seem fair.

She stood as elegantly as she'd crouched, offering him her hand. "Shall we, Sergeant?"

Bucky smiled apologetically at her. "No offence, Ma'am, but my legs don't feel like cooperating and I don't think you're strong enough to lift me."

"Oh, dear," she said, with a mildness that somehow only emphasized her concern. She reminded Bucky a lot of Monty like that. It was probably a Brit thing. "Steve, if you could help your friend, please."

Steve stepped forward immediately, looking almost as scared as when he'd pulled Bucky off the table. He took Bucky under his arms and yanked him to his feet as easily as Bucky lifting one of his sisters, then held him steady until the world stopped whirling around him and Bucky was pretty sure his knees would hold. "Maybe we should just take you to the medical tent."

"No!" Bucky winced inwardly. Great way to sound like he had something to hide. "I'm hungry, is all," he added quickly. God knew it was true anyhow. "Can't remember when I last ate anything. I'm hungry enough that even K-Rations sound good."

"K-Rations are a blight on mankind," Agent Carter explained succinctly to Steve, who probably ate steak and caviar doing his USO tour and just looked confused. "Don't worry, Sergeant. I imagine we can sneak you into the Officer's Mess this once. After your bath, of course."

She blinked in a way that made it obvious she was kidding again, though Bucky wasn't planning on going anywhere that wasn't a bathtub first anyway. "Absolutely, Ma'am."

"Please, do call me Peggy." She reached into a pocket of her jacket and pulled out two tubes of M&Ms, then deftly opened one and poured half of it into Bucky's hand. "This should give you some much-needed strength, Sergeant."

"Call me Bucky," he said faintly, staring at the candy like she'd just poured him a pile of diamonds. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had chocolate, let alone this much of it at once that he didn't feel obliged to share. "Holy shit."

Steve was still holding Bucky up. He laughed. "Don't just stare at 'em, Buck."

Bucky nodded. He swallowed, then had to clench his teeth to make sure he wasn't going to start bawling over some fucking chocolate. He slapped the candy into his mouth, forcing himself to eat slowly enough to savor it. He couldn't remember anything ever tasting this good. "Thank you."

"You are most certainly welcome, Bucky." Peggy poured out the rest and pocketed the empty tube, still holding the second one. "What else are friends for? Ouch!" She stared down at Bucky's goose, who'd just pecked her on the leg, putting a hole in her nice nylons. "Oh, so you approve, do you?"

Bucky's Guide honked, then pecked her again. Then it pecked Steve for good measure and finally Bucky. She seemed very satisfied with herself.

Bucky gave her a couple M&Ms, then gave a couple to Peggy's grey to be friendly. Real geese probably didn't like chocolate, but Guides were nuts.

Peggy's grey goose ate the candy, then pecked Bucky a moment later on the calf, nearly making him drop all the rest of them.

Steve needed a team, so Bucky chose all the guys his goose pecked, bit or scratched the most, since they were his best pals out there anyway. Only Jim Morita had a Guide in the same family as Steve's and Bucky's birds: a really colorful duck he said he saw a lot growing up in California. Bucky definitely got along with Jimmy the best out of the Howlies, but hell, they were all practically soulmates after what they'd been through.

And Peggy… Well, people started calling them 'Steve and his flock', since the three of them were together so often, whenever the commandos were back in camp or whenever she could liaise with them as an operative of the SSR. Bucky was sure people called them less benign things too, especially Peggy, but at least no one dared to do that anywhere the three of them might get wind of it. No one wanted to be the asshole who pissed off Captain America, and anyone who was dumb enough not to care about Steve got to deal with Bucky and Peggy. And their geese.

No one wanted to deal with their geese.

Peggy's Guide wasn't with her all the time the way Bucky's was with him, probably because she wasn't behind enemy lines as much. But her grey was a vicious, malevolent bastard of a waterfowl who always went for the eyes. He suited Peggy perfectly.

Bucky loved Agent Carter, maybe as much as Steve did.

He was pretty sure she felt the same. Her goose certainly did, considering how he pecked or bit Bucky and Steve whenever he saw them. And Bucky's goose pecked or bit Steve and Peggy all the time. It felt just like growing up in Brooklyn, except for how Bucky's goose-wounds would heal in minutes, instead of days.

That wasn't the only thing Bucky had to worry about. He was getting stronger and faster all the time, and his aim had gone from excellent to phenomenal. He could think faster too, and he remembered everything. He learned French from Gabe in a couple weeks, Japanese from Jimmy in a couple more. Even Steve couldn't keep up with that, but Bucky always had a head for languages. He already knew Italian and Yiddish just from where they grew up, and German and Russian because his goose insisted on it.

Steve was right, it did make things easier. Bucky used his languages, knowledge and skills all the time. Within a year, the Howling Commandos were legends among the 107th, and Bucky wasn't too humble to admit a lot of that was because of him.

That didn't mean Bucky told anyone about what was happening to him. He pretended to learn slowly, did his best to hide his quick healing and astonishing strength. He only ate as much as he could get away with without making anyone look twice at him.

His goose hated all his lying and sneaking around, but no way in hell would Bucky tell anyone he was pretty sure Hydra had turned him into a copy of Steve. He endured all her bites and hits and scratches the way he always did, and promised himself no one was ever going to make him a lab rat again. If that meant keeping his abilities secret forever, he would. Even from Steve and Peggy.

It wasn't that he didn't trust them. He trusted them more than he'd trusted anyone in his life. But there was a war on; someone was always listening. And Bucky woke up screaming often enough, even when it wasn't his Guide's fault. He'd rather die than give anyone else the chance to strap him to a table.

He'd rather die, and he'd definitely rather put up with his goose's beatings. Anything was better than some scientist getting hold of him again.

Tony's goose showed up in Afghanistan, just to force him into Rhodey's Humvee.

Tony was so shocked at seeing his Guide again after…God, what, a year? That he almost did it. He'd lost his tolerance for waterfowl abuse too, which was, admittedly, also an incentive. But in the end he decided to fuck her and the Great Cosmic Mindfuck she flew in on and stayed in the fucking Humvee he'd already chosen. He shut the door in his goose's face, and she disappeared. He half expected her to reappear inside the car and continue the beating, but she just stayed gone.

He ignored the heavy twinge of disappointment, and the even heavier one of guilt. Just like he ignored how she'd told him if he didn't go with Rhodey he'd regret it. Tony already had a list of regrets as long as his body though, so that didn't scare him much. What was one more?

An hour later he was bleeding out in the sand, surrounded by the bodies of the adorable soldier-babies who'd died trying to protect him. Right then he would have given what was left of his tattered soul for an angry goose to be there. Not to attack anyone—Tony was dying, there was no point—but just to keep him company.

She didn't. And Tony knew he deserved that, for the way he treated her and everyone. But it hurt more than his wound did all the same.

Except he didn't die.

Tony woke up, in the cold dark underground of the last place on Earth anyone would know to look for him. He had a car battery attached to his chest, and his goose standing on his legs, bobbing and hissing and honking blue murder and pecking him every few seconds.

She said she'd told him so, which Tony totally gave her for free. But she also said that she hadn't appeared during the attack because she didn't want the terrorists to kill him. She was there now, though, and she would make sure Tony got out of this fucking cave alive.

Tony's legs were covered in bruises by the time his Guide finished her diatribe, but she didn't leave. She made sure to step on his balls, then settled comfortably on his lower abdomen and tucked her head under her wing.

Thank you, Tony thought, because he'd just got out of home surgery and wasn't strong enough to say the words out loud yet. He put his hand on her smooth, gleaming-white back, and despite everything, for the first time in years he thought things might be all right.

Tony lived, and stayed living, though for a while that was possibly worse than dying would have been. He had a car battery keeping metal shards out of his heart, and a bunch of fuckface terrorist assholes who got their jollies out of dunking him. They thought his wires sparking was funny. Simple minds, simple pleasures.

His goose attacked anyone except him and Yinsen, unless they were bringing water or food. And then she attacked them on the way out. The only reason the terrorist assholes didn't shoot her was because they were just smart enough to want to avoid damaging Tony's makeshift equipment, or hitting him and Yinsen by accident. So they got beat on by a very angry goose. A lot. It was one of the very few things that made Tony's life bearable.

Yinsen definitely made Tony's life in captivity bearable too. His Guide wasn't in the same bird family—It wasn't even a bird, but some kind of spotted deer—but that didn't matter when you were a prisoner in a dark cave with no idea if the next guy who came in was going to kill you. Yinsen wasn't the kind of man Tony would normally be friends with, either. He wasn't especially good-looking or even all that notable, and he was studious and sober in a way that normally made Tony roll his eyes. He also was a surgeon, which was an area of expertise Tony had neither skill nor interest in.

But Yinsen was also very, very smart, and skilled enough to do complex, life-saving surgery in a cave and still have his patient breathing at the end of it. And he knew things about history, philosophy, politics, books, art and languages that Tony had only been peripherally aware of, and only because Pepper force fed it to him. He also had a quiet, dark sense of humor perfectly suited to their surroundings, and he knew the terrorists used Stark weapons and talked to Tony anyway.

When his stealth suit-building went well and Tony was feeling particularly optimistic, he'd imagine buying Yinsen and his family a new house after they escaped. Maybe building him a hospital. He'd probably like that. Pay for all his kids' schooling. That'd be cool.

Tony's goose pecked Yinsen a lot, because he was awesome.

She of course pecked, bit and scratched Tony all the time, like she was making up for all the lost years of not leaving him bloody and covered with bruises. She also said he was taking too long.

Anyone else she assaulted with extreme prejudice and no affection whatsoever. It wasn't enough to let him and Yinsen escape, but her vicarious defiance was very, very satisfying.

And then the assholes wised up enough to threaten Yinsen instead of Tony if his Guide didn't stop tormenting them. They nearly put a burning coal in Yinsen's mouth, and Tony begged his goose to leave their captors alone.

She did, and Tony promised that he'd work harder on the Jericho missile, as long as they didn't hurt his friend. It bought him a few more days, anyway.

He didn't realize it only bought Yinsen a few more days of life. Maybe he should have known that was how it would end, when they both saw the spotted deer as Yinsen was frantically helping Tony get into the suit. But Tony had assumed it meant something good.

Maybe it did, since Yinsen was with his family now. For whatever that was worth.

Tony killed every single one of the terrorists who tried to stop him. It didn't make him feel better.

His goose ran alongside him, wings out and neck stretched and hissing like a serpent from hell. She attacked anyone Tony didn't get to first, going for the groin or face. His helmet muted the screaming.

She disappeared right before Tony triggered the rockets, but she was there when he landed, pecking him and flapping sand into his face until he crawled out of the small crater he'd made in the dune. She pecked at his ankles to keep him walking.

Tony caught a glimpse of Rhodey's swan a minute before he heard the helicopter. Rhodey told him that he saw the goose before he saw Tony: a tiny, bright white beacon on the sand.

By 1945, the Howlies could tell the difference between the regular German troops and the fanatics because the regular troops surrendered as soon as they saw Bucky's Guide. The fanatics would try to shoot her, and then reap hell.

(There was a news reel playing for a while, about German soldiers crossing a barnyard, seeing a flock and falling into mass panic. But it was probably propaganda.)

Bucky was almost as famous as Captain America at this point, and the U.S. military had gone from being iffy about taking people with goose Guides to actively recruiting them. Bucky ended up on a poster, even, grinning and holding his angry, struggling goose in his arms. The black eye was added by the artist, but Bucky appreciated the realism. His goose headbutted him in the face often enough. It was just that these days the bruises healed really, really fast.

He was still getting stronger by the day, and hiding it along with the healing was more and more difficult. Bucky thought about just 'fessing up several times, but it always made his guts run so cold he started shaking like Stevie used to when he caught his fevers. He knew the Howlies wouldn't betray him. Hell, he knew Steve would fight to the death to keep Bucky off a table. But…he couldn't do it. It didn't matter how rugged his Guide made it for him. He just couldn't do it.

The poster's caption was: Let's Give Her a Fight! Join Up Today! Not that his goose needed more fights. But the picture was pretty good.

Bucky sent a poster home to his parents, and put up with his meathead buddies yelling, "Let's give her a fight!" and then falling all over themselves laughing. That lasted a few days, then their furlough was over and they had another mission.

He was sure his goose would give him grief about going after Zola, since she had to hate the fucking toad as much as Bucky did. Even thinking of him with his soft voice and glasses made Bucky want to throw up. But he wanted him in prison a lot more than he wanted to chicken out and make one of the others go instead.

Actually, he wanted Zola dead. But orders were orders.

He was expecting to have a face full of screaming white fury when he volunteered and Steve picked him, but all his Guide did was give him a hard peck on the knee. It wasn't as if she approved—she sure as fuck didn't—but she wasn't going to stop him, either.

She seemed sad about it though. Bucky did his best to ignore that.

She took a shot for him on the train, one of the terrifying blue kind which could turn a man to vapor the instant it hit. That was why she wasn't there when Steve went down and Bucky got blown right out of the fucking freight car protecting him.

The distance between the train and the bottom of the ravine was so far, even through his terror Bucky had time to think how he was absurdly glad she hadn't seen him fall. Bad enough that Steve was still reaching for him when the handle broke.

And he was going to die and he would never meet his soulmate. All the bites and pecks and scratches and wing-boxed ears, all the studying and fighting and skills she made him learn… In the end none of it had made a damn bit of difference.

Tony's goose started visiting him again as if she'd never been gone, which had its up- and downsides, obviously. Tony could've done without the random bites in the wee hours of the morning, for example, but he put up with it gladly because now they came with a warm, satisfied sense of approval more often than not. His guide was definitely ecstatic with the new direction of Stark Industries, and could barely contain her enthusiasm in beating the shit out of him every time he made progress on the armor.

It hurt, of course—she was a fucking goose after all, pain was their default setting—and Tony could have done without her violent micromanaging. But he hadn't realized how much he'd missed his Guide until she'd come back to him. Beady eyes, insatiable rage and all.

The goose was one of the few people who didn't treat him like he was damaged and fragile, now that he had a reactor embedded between his lungs. Most of the time he appreciated that, until she decided that his schedule needed tweaking. 'Tweaking' meant chasing him out of his workshop to eat and sleep, wings spread and hissing like a demonic pressure valve. Most of the time he ended up limping and wincing, and then the smug asshole bird would literally sit on him in his bed, threatening dire consequences if he so much as twitched instead of sleeping.

And then she'd bite him in the middle of the night anyway, because geese were evil, fickle hellfowl.

Tony's productivity suffered, but he didn't get shot into the wall as much or light as many things on fire, which was kind of a plus. His Mark II armor was finished a couple weeks ahead of his predicted schedule, and he only got concussed once. So maybe his goose had a point.

Getting revenge on the terrorists on behalf of Yinsen and all the other lives they'd destroyed might not have been moral, but it was darkly, grimly satisfying. Saving the villagers from the terrorists was even better. Tony hadn't thought beyond blowing every one of those bastards to hell, and he'd sure as fuck had never considered himself a hero. But saving lives, doing some direct, hands-on good in the world…. He could get behind that. Maybe that was something he could do.

God knew he had enough blood on his hands.

Tony's Guide appeared and attacked Obadiah Stane right when the fucker was lamenting killing the golden goose (that would be Tony) and about to pull the reactor out of his chest. Tony was in a little too much pain and shock from the betrayal to appreciate the timing, but the goose was so vicious that Obie couldn't get near Tony again before the effects of the stunner wore off. She scratched his cheek to the bone, nearly blinded him in one eye before Obie managed to grab her and break one of her wings.

His Guide honked in pain and vanished, but that only meant it was Tony's turn. And he was really fucking angry.

Obie's wolf didn't appear, even when he was bloody and twitching on the floor. Not even when Agent Agent and his boyband came to arrest the son of a bitch. Maybe Obie's Guide wasn't into betrayal either. It was a nice thought.

Later, after Pepper told him how Obie had arranged Tony's abduction, they found the Iron Monger suit. Tony was too busy barfing up the remains of his lungs to watch while Pepper kept the S.H.I.E.L.D. guys from hauling the suit away. Betrayal-induced nausea. Who knew?

Tony's goose pecked him a couple times. It made him feel a little better.

(She also pecked Agent Agent on the thigh before he left. Because geese were fickle hellfowl. Tony was not going to be buddies with a guy who looked like he belonged on a box of oatmeal, thanks. Especially if he worked for a shadowy government organization with a terrible name. Even if Pepper really liked him too.

Even if his Guide was a goddamn duck, for Christ's sake. Fucking matchmaking geese.)

Bucky woke up in the snow with his goose frantically yanking on his hair. She'd never, ever been scared before, not in Bucky's whole life, but right then she was terrified. He needed to move, get up before he froze to death. Find some way to bind up his arm. Bucky hadn't even realized he was bleeding.

There was something wrong with his left arm, but Bucky couldn't figure it out. He couldn't think. He couldn't even process how much pain he was in. He couldn't move. It didn't matter how much she pulled his hair or bit his ears, or beat her wings in his face. He couldn't move.

Eventually she gave up and just climbed onto his chest, trying to keep him warm. It didn't do much, but Bucky appreciated the effort.

He kept losing time, snapping awake with his guide biting him. He wished she'd quit it, but he couldn't speak to tell her, and he knew she'd ignore him anyway.

Bucky was awake when the Russians showed up. He was distantly confused when his goose attacked them the way she went after Nazis. Russia was their ally, these guys were going to help him. But his Guide wasn't letting them anywhere near. Did she want him to die in the snow?

Then he had the dim, molasses-slow thought that maybe one of them was his soulmate. But wasn't she supposed to be nice to his One True?

He couldn't think, and he couldn't even shout his horrified astonishment when one of the Russians shot her and she disappeared. They were allies. They had to know about Sergeant Barnes and his Guide. They could've just grabbed her. Why would his ally hurt her like that?

The soldier with the highest rank came over, crouched and examined Bucky's face, then nodded as if he'd verified something. "This is definitely him. Lucky he's as tough as that fucking animal." He patted Bucky's numb cheek, smiling like something Bucky didn't want to know about. "Welcome back."

Welcome back?

Bucky was fluent in Russian, but he had no idea what that meant. Until just before the soldier threw Bucky over his shoulder like a bleeding sack of grain. There was a disk on his collar: black with a red, tentacled skull.

Tony's goose didn't approve of him drinking himself to death on his birthday. Which was a little unfair since he was dying anyway and alcohol seemed preferable than palladium poisoning. Then again, she hadn't been thrilled with the car racing either, though the whip-wielding asshole's shock at being attacked by a goose was nice. And it wasn't like she was going to bite the dust when Tony did. Guides just went off to…the big meadow in the sky or something like that. Early retirement. She should be thanking him.

And anyway, Natalie Rushman had suggested it, and his goose bit her a lot so it should've been cool. But his Guide methodically and emphatically smashed every single bottle of alcohol in his bar, then attacked any of the poor, underpaid bastards who tried to deliver replacements.

The party was more subdued than he'd anticipated. But it made Pepper and Rhodey happy, so there was that.

The goose didn't approve of him not telling his friends about the dying thing either. She didn't give a damn that they were newlyweds and didn't deserve to have their recent (fairly recent. Okay, about a year. But still) honeymoon stage ruined by something they couldn't fix anyway. Couldn't he just make Pepper his CEO and leave it at that? Did he really have to make her cry?

No. No he couldn't leave it at that. And she did cry, just as predicted. So did Rhodey, which made Tony feel even worse. Especially because Rhodey was still pissed with him for not making suits for the military.

"I'm angry. That doesn't mean I want my best friend to die, dumbass," he said, snuffling and wiping his eyes.

Tony very wisely didn't say anything about how Rhodey would be better off without him. But he was thinking it. The goose pecked him for it. Big surprise.

Then Pepper and Rhodey started with the pep talks and planning, and they wouldn't accept that nothing was going to work and he couldn't stand it but was so thankful to have them in his corner anyway.

He was still pissed at his Guide, though. Fucking tyrant.

(He might've accidentally on purpose given Rhodey a suit. But hey, there were plenty of ways 'take good care of my legacy' could've been interpreted. It wasn't Tony's fault that Rhodey decided it meant he didn't have to give the suit back.)

Meeting Nick Fury and finding out that his truly excellent replacement PA was actually a spy for Acronym was one of the lousiest birthday presents ever. But Natasha recommended him for Nicky's special-snowflake, secret-squirrel club, which gave him the warm fuzzies. Right up until Natasha said it was because his Guide was so good at keeping him in line.

No wonder his goose liked her so much. Traitor.

Nick's welcome present was shit that used to belong to Tony's dad, which kind of spoiled the mood a little. Tony was going to refuse it, but his goose really didn't want him to. So, fine. He took all of it.

She made him watch the films too. So his party-pooping, tyrannical and traitorous motherfucking hellfowl ended up saving his life.

His goose was so fucking awesome.

Vanko and Hammer's tag team of evil and stupidity was not awesome. On the plus side, once Hammer was arrested and Vanko had gone all splodey, Tony was able to get an ironclad (hah!) contract with the military that said only Rhodey could use the suit, and only Tony would upgrade and maintain it.

Pepper was not happy that her soulmate and almost-soulmate bff both had flying death machines now. But he and Rhodey promised her they'd be careful.

Really, she had nothing to worry about. Rhodey was always careful, and Tony's goose would make sure he was, whether he wanted her to or not.

They hurt him less when he did what they wanted. When he executed their commands perfectly, they barely hurt him at all.

Bucky could already speak Russian, German, French, Japanese and Italian (he could speak Yiddish as well, but they hated that and hurt him when he did). He was already a phenomenal sniper, and very, very good in a fight. He already had enough knowledge to do basic repairs and maintenance on his arm.

"It's like you were groomed precisely to be our greatest weapon, Sergeant Barnes," Zola liked to tell him from time to time. Zola's Guide was a fucking angler fish. It suited him perfectly, but Bucky could only think of him as a toad.

Right now Toady was improving the arm's elbow joint. It was fucking excruciating. "I could not have chosen anyone more perfectly suited to our requirements."

Bucky kept looking straight ahead, teeth gritted. He ignored the tears he couldn't move to wipe off his face. They were just a useless physical reaction to his helplessness and pain. "I'm not your weapon," he snarled. "I didn't learn any of that for you."

He couldn't remember learning much of anything anymore, other than his goose making life hell for him if he didn't. (It'd seemed like hell at the time. He had no idea what hell really meant until now, when he was living it.) But it had to be true. The idea that his goose had spent years goading him to be the best not for his soulmate, for Steve, or even the war, but for Hydra was more terrible than anything they'd ever done to him.

She was his Guide. She'd chosen him because she knew what kind of person he was, what kind of man he was going to be. She knew he'd rather die than serve Hydra; she knew everything about him. So why would she have made him into everything they wanted?

Toady hummed. "Perhaps," he said, like he was humoring a child. "But, your Guide is a goose, correct?" As if there was any fucking way he couldn't know that. The two of them were surrounded by soldiers whose only job was to vaporize her the second she appeared. The fucking mooks had already done it fifteen times since they'd strapped him down.

(Bucky kept count. He always did, even if he didn't flinch or cry out anymore.)

"I have heard that Geese are more…adamant in shaping the lives of their soulmate charges," Zola went on mildly. "So. Perhaps this is your destiny, Sergeant Barnes. After all, if you are here, your Guide must have wanted you to be."

"No," Bucky gritted. He didn't tell him he learned everything for his soulmate and Steve. He'd never share something that personal with this disgusting, malicious sycophant. He didn't tell him to shut the fuck up, either. Because he was trapped in the Chair right now, and he was terrified of giving them a reason to use it on him.

Barnes was sure he used to be more defiant. He was forgetting everything, losing himself by increments every time they put him in the Chair. He lost weeks, months at a time. Some days he'd wake up in his cell and he wouldn't know his name. Some days he couldn't recognize his Guide.

But he was sure he had fought back, once. He could feel it in the restlessness under his skin, the hard, sick ball of anger in his guts, the way he couldn't stop testing the restraints or clenching his right hand. He could never remember the punishment, but his body did.

He didn't know what would happen to him when he forgot everything but their punishments.

"You think not? Interesting." Toady hummed again. He moved his tweezers and Bucky couldn't hold back the scream. "Shh. Shh. We are almost done here. Soon you may go back to your room and rest. I assume your Guide will visit you again," he added conversationally. Something scraped in the joint and Bucky arched and howled. "You should ask her what her intentions were for you. Ah!" he added happily. "One…last…adjustment…" Zola twisted his hand and the pain—

Bucky opened his eyes and lifted his head. It took him a long, unsteady moment to remember where he was. He was strapped down in the Chair. Zola was replacing the plates on his arm. "Ah, you are awake. Good. I will need to run some tests. I'm afraid they will most likely be quite painful, too." His smile made Bucky's skin crawl. "It is fortunate that your goose made you so resilient, Sergeant Barnes. Fortunate indeed."

The next time Bucky passed out he woke up back in his cell with his goose pecking him like a small, frantic pickaxe.

She told him he was an idiot. She had never groomed him for Hydra. She had groomed him to survive them. Her job was to get him to his soulmate, and she would do anything to make sure he did.

"Thank you," Bucky breathed. Maybe Zola would say the motivation didn't matter, since the results were the same. But to Bucky it made all the difference in the world. "I don't want to survive this," he told her. His arm was bruising where she'd been pecking him. He could barely feel it. "I'd rather die than work for them. My soulmate will understand."

Her refusal involved biting him so hard she tore a small chunk out of his arm.

A large, dangerous bird kept following him.

He had no idea why this happened, but he knew better than to ask. He didn't remember if he'd ever asked before, but he always wanted to ask why it…she…had appeared every time she did, so he was sure he must have asked the question at least once.

He couldn't remember the consequences, but the idea of asking what the bird was made him nauseous with fear. So he didn't.

His handlers and the ones who maintained him hated her. That much he understood completely. It made sense, since she attacked any of them who came near him. She was astonishingly vicious, always going for their face or groin. One of his guards had an eyepatch. He was sure that was the bird's fault.

He didn't help her. He couldn't even move. He wanted to, stood trembling with it despite the terror that kept him rooted like the ice they froze him in. He thought maybe he even had fought with her, before. He remembered running and blood that wasn't his, the fear and hope mixed with a heady elation.

He couldn't remember what they did to him afterwards. But now he only watched.

It always ended the same: They shot her and she disappeared, and then they punished him.

They always said if he'd stop her from fighting them, they'd stop hurting him too. He always ignored it. His bird was worth any kind of pain.

She would come back when he'd been returned to his cage, then sit on his chest or pressed against his stomach, nibbling at his ears or his hair.

That was the way she spoke to him. He didn't understand how that worked, but he'd been trained not to question.

She told him she was his, and that he had to be brave. She told him that he was a person. An American. That his name was James Buchanan Barnes, and he had a soulmate who was waiting for him.

He held that precious knowledge close to him like he held her warm, round body in the darkness of his cage. He didn't know what a soulmate was or why she came to him, but he was so, so grateful for her.

"Don't leave me," he would whisper to her. He didn't know how many times he might have said it before, how often she had nibbled his hair and kept him warm. "Even if I forget you. Please. Don't leave."

She pecked him gently and promised that she never would. He believed her, but he was still terrified that they'd find a way to take her from him.

(There was a white animal in the soldier's cage. She…it…seemed familiar, though he knew he'd never seen it before. Maybe he'd encountered one on a mission.

Regardless, he had strict orders. He grabbed it and wrung its neck before it had the chance to approach him. The animal disappeared, which was familiar as well. He didn't know why, but he didn't question. He knew better than to question anything.

He didn't know why he vomited immediately afterwards either. He was immune to illness and poison. He didn't know why there was so much water in his eyes.)

The white, loud animal tried to prevent him from forcing the targets' car off the road by purposely flying into him. It was enraged, and surprisingly strong for such a small creature. He had to ignore his standing orders to kill it immediately in order to maintain control of his motorcycle.

It told him, with each furious bite and scratch and beat of its wings, that she was his Guide. He could not kill Howard and Maria Stark. Howard was his friend.

The soldier had no friends, only handlers and the workers who maintained him. The only guide he required was his orders, and they didn't allow for either target to survive.

He must kill the targets. The List was in his head and he couldn't disobey.

The soldier managed to grab the goose with his metal hand and crush her in his fist. She disappeared and the mission went much more smoothly after that. Until he had the primary target outside of the car.

The target (Howard Stark) looked up at him and said, "Sergeant Barnes? Where's your goose?"

Names didn't apply to the soldier, only designations. The goose had disappeared and she wasn't his (She was his Guide. What the hell had he done to her?), so the question was irrelevant.

He didn't know what caused him to hesitate, or the sudden, brief image in his head: him and…the target? The younger target? They were discussing something. The soldier had different hair and armor, and the goose was on the table. She stabbed the soldier's hand (flesh and bone, not metal. Not a weapon) with her beak. The target laughed, and the soldier rubbed his hand and smiled….

The soldier regained the use of his arm and hit the target twice in the face, crushing his skull. He broke the secondary target's neck, placed the bodies as instructed, and then retrieved the objective.

The mission was successful. There was no reason for the soldier to feel…to feel…

What did he do? God in heaven, what did he just do?

…Dread. As if he had actually failed. As if he had done something unforgivable.

He began to tremble like he'd been placed in Cryo. He was breathing too fast. He had training not to do that. He should…he needed—

The soldier sat hard on the ground, black creeping into his vision. He had done something unforgivable. He had the List in his head and he completed the mission almost perfectly. But by completing it he'd done something unforgivable. But he had to carry out the mission….

He wailed, clutching his head. He wasn't injured but he was still in pain. The thoughts hurt. He wanted the List back. He wanted the Chair. Anything to stop this agony in his mind.

The goose reappeared. He needed to kill it, but he did nothing as she flew at him and vented her rage.

He deserved it.

Steve couldn't keep his eyes off Tony's goose. Tony knew why, but it was still creepy as fuck. Especially because every time Tony caught him Steve would jerk his eyes away like he knew exactly what he was doing and how fucking creepy it was.

He had a swan, too. Like Rhodey. He and Tony should've been bros. But Tony just knew the first time he walked out of his armor and saw Steve's face that he'd been compared to dear old Dad and found wanting. Just like always.

Figured. He'd been compared to Captain fucking America his entire goddamn life, and now Captain fucking America was comparing him to Howard, and Tony still wasn't good enough.

Well, fuck Captain fucking America. Tony didn't need him.

He really didn't need the constant eyeballing either. "Stalker much?"

Steve blinked, startled. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to stare. It's just…."

"I have the same kind of Guide as Bucky. I know."

Steve nodded vaguely, then swallowed. "I'm sorry," he said again, because of course he would. "It's just difficult. Seeing your goose. I know it's not your fault. But, I really miss him. And I know she's yours, but I keep expecting—" He broke off, manly jaw clenching as he manfully fought off the tears. He flicked Tony a wan, apologetic smile like a kitten in the rain. "I'll stop."

"Good," Tony said, because he had no idea what else to say. He thought about what Pepper and Rhodey would do, almost clapped Steve on the arm before he caught himself and stuffed his hands in his pockets. He didn't need Captain fucking America and Steve sure as hell didn't need him. "I'll, uh, see if I can get her to show up less. If you're around." Pretty easy to offer, since he was booking the second this Loki bullshit was over. Steve-o wouldn't have to sully his patriotic blue eyes on Tony's goose ever again.

His Guide honked angrily and bit Tony in the thigh. Apparently she didn't appreciate his implication that she wasn't a clean, well-groomed goose.

Steve's perfect mouth twitched into a tiny little smirk. The goose promptly bit him on the thigh too.

Fucking geese.

Steve didn't stare at the goose again. He didn't even mention her. Tony didn't like him any better.

The Loki bullshit broke part of Manhattan and killed one of Tony's friends. Tony's goose fought like the feathered demon she was, until a Chitauri got off a lucky shot and she disappeared.

Probably just as well. It wasn't like she could follow him into space. Hopefully this way she could just reappear as someone else's Guide, never have to sully her beady blue eyes on Tony ever again.

At least Steve would be happy.

Steve was not happy. Steve was, in fact, very worried that Tony was going to buy the farm up among the stars. At least that's what Thor told Tony later, when Steve fell asleep at the shawarma restaurant.

Tony…did not know what to do with that. He still hated Steve. Kind of. A little bit. Well, he hated Steve's righteousness and occasional arrogance, and how he was so obviously still grieving but being so stupidly brave about it. Tony really hated how hard Steve was trying to make up for all the shitty stuff he'd said on the helicarrier, even though he'd already forgiven Tony for the same crap. And how Steve was killing himself trying to ignore Tony's goose when she was obviously breaking his heart and okay, fine. Tony didn't hate Steve anymore.

That didn't mean he had to like him, though. He might've had the goose Injury of Approval, but she'd bitten all the Avengers. Honestly, Tony was starting to think his goose was just really friendly.

Alright, Tony and Steve could exchange Christmas cards. And it'd be easy to remember Spangles' birthday. Whateves. But Tony didn't have to like him.

The soldier woke up and was dragged, weak and trembling, to the Chair, but his handler the Colonel wasn't waiting for him. The red book was gone too.

Everyone was different. The soldiers guarding his handler were wearing black. He didn't recognize their guns. They spoke English.

They didn't strap him down. They didn't turn the Chair on, either.

He knew better than to question, so he stayed watchful and silent. But there was something…a feeling, like wanting and dreading at the same time. These people were American. What if…were they…did this mean….

He didn't know what the right words were. He couldn't remember.

One of the Americans was standing closer than the others. He was about the soldier's height, handsome with light hair and blue eyes. The soldier felt almost like he knew him, though that was impossible. The soldier knew no one except his handlers and the ones who maintained him. But seeing this man's face put him at ease.

"Good morning, Soldier," he said. He was smiling. "My name's Pierce. I'm your new handler."

Handler. Just like before. This wasn't…this wasn't anything different, then.

He didn't know the name for what he was feeling now either, but it was like something crumbling inside him. He didn't show it on his face. His handlers had never allowed that. "Ready to comply, sir," he said, because that was what handlers expected of him.

But Pierce shook his head. "I'm not asking for your compliance right now, Soldier. I need you to listen."

"Yes, sir."

Pierce smiled again. "That's better."

The Colonel hadn't smiled. He read the words of the List while the soldier was screaming in the Chair, then gave him his mission. The soldier kept looking for the red book out of the corner of his eye. He expected Pierce to have it, to start reading the List. But it wasn't on the table and Pierce wasn't holding it in his hands. He didn't even stay standing. One of the guards brought him a stool and Pierce sat on it, putting them at eye level.

These new handlers were stupid. Didn't they know how dangerous he was?

"You've been asleep a long time, Soldier," Pierce said. "The Soviet Union collapsed shortly after your last mission." He stopped talking, waited.

The soldier didn't move, wondering what Pierce was waiting for. He never remembered his missions.

"December 16, 1991? You were sent to retrieve a case of Serum?" Pierce waited another moment, but just hummed and went on when the soldier still didn't move. "Russia was given its independence from the former Union nine days later. You were back under by then. The Soviet Hydra died along with the Union, and you were kind of lost in the shuffle. Ignominious, I know," he said, smiling at the soldier as if they were sharing a joke. "My thin little branch of Hydra was fortunate enough to inherit you."

Pierce leaned forward, like he was about to tell the solider a secret. "Your work has been a gift to mankind. You helped shape the last century. I'm looking forward to working with you as we shape this one. The world's changed. It's a darker, more dangerous place now, since 2001. It's going to take all our skill, courage and fortitude to keep her on the path we started, to ensure everyone gets the freedom they deserve. You're going to be an invaluable asset for us, just as you were for the Soviets. I know everything is strange and new right now, but I have to ask you to trust me. Trust all of us. Together we're building a better future."

He waited again, smiling.

The Soldier wasn't used to being spoken to like he was a person. He couldn't remember anyone even talking to him, beyond the List in the red book and his orders. He had no idea what his new handler expected of him. So he stayed still and said nothing.

Pierce pressed his lips together and let out a breath through his nose. "Look." He pushed up his sleeve. There was a black bird on the inside of his arm. It looked like the soldier's bird, but the neck was longer. It also didn't look angry. "You see? We're meant to work together."

The soldier stared at the picture. There was the same wanting and dreading like a weight behind his ribs. He wanted to touch his new handler's arm, run his fingers over the image. It was…he knew it. Recognized it. Like Pierce's face. He wanted to believe him. But. "That's…wrong. The wrong arm."

His handler blinked, then smiled wider. "I can understand how it might seem like that. You have your bird soulmark on the inside of your right arm. Most people do, but some have it on the left. Some even have it on their leg. It's natural. My Guide is a black swan. Yours is a white goose. Geese and Swans go together. It means we're going to make a great team."

The soldier didn't know what a Guide was, but he knew what the animal pictures looked like. His former handlers had tried for years to remove his. Not even carving it off worked longer than it took him to heal. "Your picture is wrong," he said. He was sure of it, as sure as he could be of anything. Pierce's swan had something wrong with it. The skin around it was very red. "It's wrong. It's not real."

Pierce stopped smiling. "What do you mean? Of course it's real. I just told you—"

The soldier grabbed Pierce's right arm, pushing the sleeve back. He was very, very careful not to hurt him, though he knew it wouldn't matter anyway. Touching your handler was forbidden unless they requested it first. The soldier knew he would be punished for this, and that it would be terrible. But this was more important. He had to see.

His handler had a picture of an orange octopus on the inside of his arm. That one looked real.

"Let go. Now." Pierce's eyes were like ice.

The soldier let go instantly, yanking his hands into his lap. He should have put them behind his back and knelt on the floor, but he kept looking his handler in the face. This defiance was inexcusable. They might kill him for it. He didn't care. "Your swan isn't real," he said. He was angry. He wasn't allowed to be angry either, but it felt good. It made him think of the white bird on his arm. "Your swan isn't real. You're not my handlers." Their stupidity only proved it. They didn't have the List. How did they expect him to obey? "Where's the Colonel? What did you do with him?"

"Karpov's not here, like I told you." His handler said. He was still calm, but he slowly stood and retreated to his guards. That wouldn't save him. "You belong to me now. I'm your new handler."

The soldier's heartrate leapt up, beating so hard it hurt. "No," he said, barely a whisper. Then, more loudly, "No. I don't want a new handler. I don't want to be here! I want to go home!"

He stood. He stood and got out of the Chair. Instantly all the guards raised their guns.

Pierce held up his hand, signaling them not to fire. He took a step closer, shrugging off the hand his black haired guard put on his arm. "This is your home," he said. "Look around. This has always been your home. What other place is there for a weapon like you? Now be a good soldier and Sit. Down. Now."

The solder swallowed. He was trembling with anger and fear. "No." He clenched his fists, left arm whirring. "I want to go home."

There was suddenly a white bird with them. It looked like the one on his arm. It was definitely just as angry. Immediately it flew at the black-haired guard, making loud noises and beating at him with its beak and wings.

The guard yelled and threw up his hands, trying to shove the bird away from him. It was too close for him to use his gun, and he couldn't grab anything else without letting the bird at his eyes.

The soldier froze. He had his orders: if the bird appeared, kill it. If the bird attacked anyone, don't move. But those orders came from the Colonel, and he wasn't there. These handlers didn't have the List. They were stupid and hadn't restrained him.

He moved.

His hesitation cost him, though. One of the other guards was trying to pull the bird away from his comrade, but there were six more men. They'd pulled metal batons out of sheaths on their thighs. The soldier could hear them crackling. Electrified. He needed to avoid those.

They came at him all at once.

The soldier dodged the first swing, punched another of them in the chest with his left fist. That one fell, dying. One got his arm around the Soldier's neck from behind. Two more grabbed his arms. The remaining two stabbed him with their electric batons.

It felt like the Chair. The soldier screamed, back arching as his muscles locked. But it was just pain, and his left arm didn't have muscles. He grabbed the nearest guard with a baton by his hair, then smashed his face into his raised knee. The one on his arm was dragged with him. He wrapped his fingers around the shoulder strap of the man's Kevlar, then used that guard's body to hit the other one with the baton.

That just left the one on his right arm and the one hanging from his neck. He punched the one on his arm in the head, felt the skull cave, and that just left one. The guard on his neck was using his entire bodyweight, trying to drag the soldier to the floor. The soldier wrapped his left hand around the guard's wrist and squeezed, then wrenched his arm away from his throat. He threw that guard across the room.

The entire fight only took a few seconds. His bird (goose! His goose!) was still attacking the guard with the dark hair. There was blood streaking her wings and the man was screaming. His comrade was still trying to yank the bird off him, but it moved too fast and he couldn't get a grip on it.

The soldier seized him by the throat and snapped his neck, and was shot as he spun to toss the corpse away.

Four bullets. He was turning to his left, so the first two bullets went into his chest almost side by side, a one-two punch in his right lung. He deflected the third with his arm and the last one missed since he was still moving. Except a moment later his legs gave out.

It was Pierce. Pierce had shot him. The soldier assumed he'd fled. None of the civilians had ever had weapons. That was what the guards were for.

Stupid mistake, to assume these Americans were the same.

He watched Pierce cross the room, tried to get up but he was drowning in the blood from his lung. He coughed, spattering red.

The guard with the black hair aimed his gun at the soldier's head. He might have lost an eye, but there was too much blood on his face and neck to tell. He kicked the soldier in the chest right where the bullets went in, pushing him onto his back. It hurt terribly but he couldn't scream. His lungs made thick, wet wheezing noises when he tried to breathe.

"Yeah, I bet that hurts, you son of a bitch!" The guard put his foot on the soldier's wound, leaning into it. He couldn't breathe to cry out, and the world went grey with pain. "Your fucking goose ripped out my eye! I should put out yours! Teach you to keep your fucking Guide away from me."

His goose was gone. He didn't know what happened to it. Was it dead? He couldn't see a body.

He couldn't breathe. He strained, reached across his body with his left hand, grabbed the guard's ankle and yanked.

"Shit!" The guard shot reflexively, but the bullet only scored the concrete next to the soldier's head.

He was too weak to throw him far, but at least the weight was gone. The soldier curled onto his left side, gasping for air around the blood and the pain.

"You fuck!" The guard leapt to his feet, then staggered on his hurt ankle and hopped to regain his balance, swearing viciously. He aimed his gun in both his hands. "That's it!"

"Brock, that's enough," Pierce said.

"We don't need him! He killed my men! He's a fucking liability!" Brock shouted, not moving his eyes or his weapon.

"That's not your call." Pierce slid his gun into a holster at the small of his back then came over to them, watching impassively as the soldier struggled to breathe. "I know you're angry, Brock, and you want revenge. But if anything, it only proves how useful he'll be once he's reconditioned."

"He's a fucking rabid dog," Brock snarled. "He needs putting down."

"He's an asset," Pierce countered mildly. "This was just a small setback. Like any new tool, we need to learn how to use him properly. The swan didn't work, so we'll try something else." He put his hand on Brock's closer wrist. "We're not putting him down, Brock. Lower your gun."

Brock scowled, but changed his aim so if he fired it wouldn't be an automatic kill shot. "Should've wiped him right out of Cryo. That's what the commies did."

Pierce frowned, but he nodded. "The Soviets were brutes. That's no way to treat a work of art. But in this case, I'll concede you're probably right." He patted Brock's shoulder. "Get the technicians in here, then get your eye looked after. We'll wipe him and try something else."

"He might not last that long," Brock said. "You got him good."

"He has almost the same serum in his veins as Captain America," Pierce said. "He'll survive."

He woke up restrained in the Chair, shaking and in pain. His chest hurt when he breathed.

That was normal, but he didn't recognize the men with him. One was tall and blond. He looked familiar in a way the soldier couldn't name but made him wary. The man next to him was all in black, carrying an unfamiliar weapon. He was obviously the blond's guard. He had lots of cuts on his face and forearms, all deep and recent. There was a gauze patch over one eye. That would affect his depth perception.

An animal appeared suddenly out of nowhere. It was fairly large and white with orange legs. It also had wings, and flew right at the blond, blaring like an alarm. It raked his face with its claws. It seemed angry.

"Fuck!" The guard shot it. The animal vanished.

The soldier cried out in shock. He didn't understand why the animal had been there, but he hadn't wanted it gone.

"Thank you, Brock," The blond said. He pulled a cloth out of his pocked and dabbed at the three bleeding gashes on his forehead. "My name is Pierce. I'm your new handler. You belong to us now and will do what we tell you do. Do you understand?"

The soldier nodded.

"You reply when I ask you a question. I asked if you understood."

"Yes, sir," he said quickly.

"Better." Pierce smiled. It made the soldier think of Cryo. "Now, I hadn't wanted to do this. Unfortunately we clearly have no choice." He came closer, bent so that he was looking directly into the soldier's eyes. "Every time that goose appears, you will be wiped. This will be the third time. The technicians are reliably certain that wiping you more than six times in succession will render you completely inoperable. I'm counting on your Guide to stop harassing us before we reach that point."

The soldier stared at him. He didn't know what his handler was talking about. All he knew was that Pierce meant the Chair, and the soldier didn't want to go through that again. "Sir. No, please."

"Hydra operatives don't beg, Asset. It makes you look weak." Pierce straightened and stepped back.

The metal circles came down.

He woke up in so much pain he couldn't move. His throat burned and his chest ached when he breathed. Just turning his head was blinding agony.

He didn't know where he was, or who was with him. There were eight men, all in black and holding long, clear rectangles of thick plastic in front of them. They had more plastic in front of their faces. He didn't know what they were called, but knew it was for protection. The men had deep, red cuts all over their skin. One of them had something covering one of his eyes. He was protecting a man with yellow hair and a cut on his forehead. The man's white shirt was ripped and he had cuts on his arms, too.

"He's awake. Get ready," the man with the covered eye said. He took a breath and lifted the rectangle. He had a gun in his other hand.

A white and orange animal appeared in front of him.

"Oh, God," one of the men whispered.

The animal stood, turning and tilting its head to look upwards with one eye. It stretched out its neck and arms and made a loud noise. All the men backed up. Someone whimpered.

"Don't tell me we're going to have to do this nine fucking times," the man with the covered eye said to the one with yellow hair. "We should just shoot him. Swear to God."

"Wait. It hasn't moved yet," the man with yellow hair said. He sounded tired.

They waited. He didn't know for what, but none of them spoke to him. He just tried to keep still and breathe through the pain.

The animal shook itself, then turned around. Most of the men breathed out in relief. Some thanked God. One yelled, 'Yes!' and lifted a fist in the air.

The animal walked to stand in front of him. It moved its wings fast to help it hop onto the chair, then balanced on his thigh. The tiny knives on its feet hurt. It turned its head and tucked it under one of its wings.

"You miserable fucking animal!" the man with the covered eye roared. He aimed his gun at it.

"Don't," The man with the yellow hair said. "If you miss and hit her charge instead there'll be hell to pay."

"I won't miss."

"Do you want to bet your right eye on that?"

The man with the covered eye put his gun away. "So what the hell do we do?"

"I'm going to get cleaned up and have something to eat. You are going to take him to his cell. Carefully. Without aggravating the goose."

Covered Eye went pale and swallowed.

Yellow hair looked at a round circle on his wrist, then frowned. "We've been here nearly fifteen hours. We need to shorten the time it takes to wipe him."

"There may not be anything left to wipe," Covered Eye said. His face had a green tinge.

"Of course there is. His goose wouldn't still be here if he was a vegetable." Yellow Hair came closer. "You see? He's tracking me with his eyes. I bet he's thinking of twelve ways to kill me right now. Aren't you?" Yellow hair said to him, then reached out and patted his cheek. His smile had something wrong with it. He wiped his hand on his pants. "He's still in there. He just needs a good rest and we'll take him for a test run."

"What about the goose?" Covered Eye said.

Yellow Hair still had his wrong smile. "We each know what the other is capable of. I think we've reached an understanding."

He woke up shaking and in pain, on a cot along the wall of a small, bare room. His entire body ached so badly he could barely move. His chest hurt when he breathed. His head was dull agony.

There was a white and orange animal with him. He'd never seen it before.

They watched each other for a while. The animal turned its head to look at him out of each of its eyes. It made a noise that sounded like a question, but even if he knew what it wanted, he couldn't form words to answer.

He gritted his teeth and stretched his shaking arm towards it. It looked soft and safe and warm. He didn't know where he was, but there was nothing soft and safe and warm here. Maybe it would let him touch it for a little while?

The animal stepped into his reach and hit his arm with its nose.

The shock of it hurt far worse than the actual pain. But…it was a better hurt. He didn't know why he thought that, but it was all right if this animal hit him. It still felt safe, even though it left a bruise. The bruise would fade soon anyway.

The animal spoke to him when it hit. Nothing in words, but he knew it was pleased with him.

He didn't know why it…she…would be. He couldn't remember doing anything. But he liked her being pleased. Her approval made him happy, even if he didn't know what it was for.

The animal came closer, and he prepared himself for another hit, but instead she flapped her wings and jumped onto his stomach. She sat and tucked her head under his chin.

She was very soft, it turned out. And warm.

"So," Tony said, "How's our national icon enjoying the nation's capital?"

Steve smirked, but Tony could hear how his heart wasn't in it. It wasn't in much these days. Tony didn't want to think too hard about the last time he'd seen Steve smile and mean it, because he was a little worried it would have been right after the Chitauri invasion. That was nearly four months ago.

Which was the exact reason Tony wasn't going to invite Steve to New York for the weekend, until his goose basically bullied him into it. Tony was pretty sure coming back would only make Steve feel worse.

And then Steve had sounded so grateful on the phone, like Tony was doing him an enormous favor, that Tony didn't even complain when his Guide maimed his ankles in triumphant vindication. He also resolved to have Steve over every weekend until the end of time.

"D.C. is fine." Steve took a swig of the organic craft beer Tony would never have bought, except for how the company claimed to use a recipe from 1919. "My apartment's nice. Not too expensive. Fury's keeping me busy."

"Busy," Tony repeated, drinking from his own bottle then grimacing it down. Definitely an acquired taste. At least Steve liked it. Too bad it wouldn't take the edge off for him.

He could use getting drunk, if it might make him feel better. Hell, Steve could use anything that could.

"You know," Tony said, as casually as he could manage, "you could move back here. There's an entire floor of Avengers Tower with your name on it. Literally. I put your name on the door. Rent free," he added, because Steve was constantly fretting about how expensive things were in this brave new world he'd woken up in.

Steve's smile was a little more genuine this time, which only made it sadder. "That's a kind offer, Tony. But Fury needs me in D.C. And…I'm doing good things, you know? Making a difference." He chugged the rest of his beer, as if that would somehow make him sound less like he was repeating a bad script. "I told you Natasha's on my team, right?"

"Yes, you did." Tony nodded. "And since I know you don't forget anything, I'll ignore that transparent attempt to change the subject and just tell you that you're not the army's rentboy anymore. You don't have to keep fighting the good fight if you don't want to."

"I don't know what I want, Tony," Steve said on a sigh that gusted out of him like a miserable hurricane. He closed his eyes and rubbed the space of immaculate skin between them. "No, that's not true. I want…." He sighed again and looked at Tony. "I want things the way they were before. Before I woke up. And I know that's impossible."

"Yeah," Tony said, rough. He wanted to pat Steve's knee or shoulder, but he'd chosen the wrong seat for that, and moving closer now would just be awkward. "I know what you mean. Believe me I know what you mean. "There are so many things…." He shook his head and chugged his own beer, then wiped his mouth with the side of his hand. "I know what you mean."

His goose appeared and bit his shin like the world's angriest therapist. "Ow!"

Steve smiled fondly at her and held out his hand. Tony's Guide obligingly waddled over and pecked it. "Not sure if she's agreeing with you or telling you that you shouldn't have regrets."

"Both," Tony said easily, "definitely both." He finished his beer in a couple gulps. "I'd seriously build you a time machine if I could. Hell, I'd do it for both of us. Go back and smack myself upside the head before I did anything stupid." He frowned. "I'd be there forever."

Steve chuckled, but it faded quickly. "I have a feeling almost everyone has something in their past they'd like to change." He rolled his empty bottle between his palms. "It's been two years since Bucky died." He took a breath. "I mean, I know it's been longer than that, for everyone else. But…."

"It's only been two years," Tony filled in for him. "Two years after my parents died, I was still a fucking basket case. I mean, it was better, but, yeah. You're actually handling it way better than I did. For what that's worth." He forced a smile. "I know the bar's not that high."

His goose bit him again. "Ow! Fuck!"

"She's right, Tony," Steve said. "You shouldn't talk about yourself like that. You're a good man."

Tony blinked, then automatically opened his mouth to deny it. His goose hissed and he snapped it shut again. "Thanks," he said instead. "And, uh, you too."

Steve flashed him a smile before looking back down at the bottle in his hands. "You remind me of him, you know. Not just your Guide," he went on over Tony's blank astonishment, "though that's obviously a big reason. But it's more your personality. His wasn't quite as…expansive as yours." Steve looked up and grinned warmly, taking any sting out of his words. "But he owned any room he walked into, the way you do. And he had a way of making everything he did seem effortless, even if he'd worked his ass off to get there. And, God." Steve shook his head, huffing in fond annoyance. "He was stubborn. I know everyone thinks I am, but I had nothing on him. Believe me. And, he'd do anything for the people he cared about. Anything. He—" Steve's voice cracked on an aborted sob. He looked away, swallowing. "He'd die for them," he said softly. "Just like you." Steve sniffed, gave Tony a tiny, broken smile as he wiped his eyes. "And he loved science and technology. The idea of what the future would bring us excited him so much. I'm sure he would've become an engineer, after the war. If…."

"My dad told me about him," Tony said quietly. "He wasn't gaga over him the way he was over you, but, yeah. He had a hell of a lot of time for him. He was teaching him stuff. Talking about him coming to apprentice or something, after."

But there was no 'after' for Bucky Barnes. Neither of them had to say it.

Steve nodded. "He would have liked you."

Tony gaped. Astonishing enough that Tony reminded Captain America of his best friend. But for Steve to say Bucky would have liked him?

"I'm honored," Tony said simply. And meant it.

Steve flashed him another one of his warm smiles. "When I saw your Guide, for a second I thought it was Bucky. Well, you know that." He let out a breath that only barely trembled, running his fingers through his hair. "I know he's dead. I watched him…I watched it happen. Of course I know he's dead. But I saw your goose, and for a second I was so sure—" He gritted his teeth, breathing through his nose before he looked up again. Tony had seen that bleakness in the mirror a few too many times not to recognize it. "It'd been over a year since I woke up and, and tried to…get used to it. And then I saw the goose and it felt like I'd only just lost him. All over again." Steve swallowed again, jaw bunching at the corners. "And I was so fucking angry, that God could've done that. Forced me to be on the team with the one man who embodied everything I'd lost all at once. But none of that was your fault. I shouldn't have taken my grief out on you."

The goose nibbled Steve's thumbnail. He gave her a tiny, grateful smile.

"You don't have to apologize again, Steve," Tony said. He put his bottle to his mouth before he remembered it was empty. Lousy time not to have alcohol immediately at hand. "We both said dumbass shit we regret. And while we're confessing past—long past—sins, you were the beautiful legend whose shadow I'd been trying to crawl out from under my entire life. When I saw you in Germany in your stupid outfit, still defiant even on your knees…it was like every single lousy, rotten thing my dad ever said to me, all wrapped up in spangles and tights." Tony gave Steve a bloodless smirk. "God, I hated your guts for that. But my daddy issues aren't your fault either. And I said some really shitty stuff too. So, if I haven't said it yet, I'm sorry."

"You have," Steve assured him. "But, thanks." He graced Tony with another smile. "The worst part is that I knew we should have been friends right from the beginning, because of our Guides. I've always been close with people who had Guides from the same bird family."

"Anatidae," Tony said. Steve nodded. "I resisted being your friend like hell, believe me." He grinned at Steve's smirk. "You can see how well that worked."

"Not as well as you hoped?"

"Dismal failure," Tony agreed solemnly. He went to grab his bottle for an impromptu toast, then remembered it was still empty. He put his hands on the armrests of his chair to stand up. "We need more beer."

Steve looked like he wanted to say something, then just closed his mouth and nodded again. "Sure. Why not?"

"Good man." Tony clapped Steve on the shoulder as he passed him, glad to finally touch for whatever comfort his closeness might offer him. "I'm not giving you beer," he said to the goose, who was smacksmacksmack-ing along behind him.

She just cocked her head and glared up at him with one baleful, pretty blue eye.

Tony did give her some leftover French fries that were in the fridge. She bit him in appreciation.

"Okay, Spangles, spill. What's inside that beautifully noble head of yours?" he asked as he handed Steve a fresh beer. "You keep looking like you want to say something."

Steve rolled his eyes, then took a long drink, eyeing Tony as he sat down.

Tony chose to share the couch with Steve this time, putting himself in easy arms' reach. His Guide jumped onto the armrest, which put his face within easy pecking distance. Tony eased a little closer to Steve. "Well?" He took a sip, arching his eyebrows over the rim of the bottle.

"I've only ever seen one other person in my life with a goose Guide, besides Bucky and you, and that was Peggy Carter," Steve said.

"Yeah, okay. So?" Tony frowned, puzzled. "I've known three personally. Peggy and her husband Daniel, and a friend of mine from university. Geese are pretty rare. Why?" he couldn't help adding. "You trying to collect the full set?"

Steve barely gave that a twitch of his lips. "It's stupid, but…." He grimaced. "It's stupid. But, I can't help thinking that you should've been Bucky's soulmate."

Tony went still, then forced a smile. "Well, I guess you're cut off."

"I can't get drunk, Tony," Steve said, as if either Tony hadn't known that or Steve's ability to get drunk was somehow the point. He smiled apologetically. "Like I said, it's stupid. I know he's…. I know it's impossible. It's just…." He sighed. "He would've liked you."

"Of course he would have liked me. I'm very likable," Tony said with a casualness completely at odds with how badly his heart was pounding. "And, you know, Anatidae bros. But, even if I could somehow go back in time and tell him to invest in a parachute, just having the same Guide wouldn't make us soulmates. If it did, well, I don't know about you, but that many orgies would be terrifying. I mean, just the people with dog Guides alone…." His forced jovial babbling dried up under the soft tragedy of Steve's gentle, understanding gaze. "We wouldn't be compatible," Tony finished, much more softly. He shrugged, trying and failing to find one of his bright, press-release grins. "I mean, you've met me, right? I'm the guy you warn your kids about. The one who'd try to cut the wire instead of making the sacrifice play. I'm not…I'm not like him. Like he was. I'm just…me."

His goose made a warning noise. Tony slid even closer to Steve.

"Tony," Steve said, with the same horrifically gentle understanding in his voice as his expression, "I just told you how much you reminded me of him. Why do you think I would've said that if I didn't…." He swallowed again. His smile turned watery and Tony could probably have died of shame now, thanks. "If I didn't think it was true?"

"Because you're really nice," Tony said. He tried to make it sound like a joke. It didn't sound anything like a joke. "And…." He had to swallow too now. Great. "And you miss him. And, and unfortunately, I'm the only other person you know with a Guide who's a goose. Sorry," he added, though he didn't know what he was apologizing for, exactly. Other than being who he was, instead of the man Steve wanted him to be. "Ow! Jesus Christ!" He rubbed his ear, scowling at the goose. "Did you have to tear a chunk out? Really?"

"You're not bleeding, Tony. She didn't break the skin." Steve went back to rolling his bottle between his hands. "I do miss him," he said softly. "He was my best friend. More than that. He was as close to a soulmate as I've ever had. And…" He took a breath. "And after 70 years, I'm pretty sure he'll be the closest to a soulmate I'll ever get. Even when I had nothing, I had Bucky. I miss him every minute of every day." He looked up, and now his gaze wasn't gentle at all. "But that doesn't mean I don't have standards."

Tony's goose hissed sternly at him. Of course she'd agree with Steve. "I thought about it, sometimes," Tony admitted. His smirk came out a lot more like a wince. "When I was growing up. After I found out our Guides were the same type of goose. I mean, how could I not, right? He was smart, brave, heroic, hot as hell, and he had the same Guide. Of course I thought about it. I'd have to have been dead not to." He took another slug of his beer, mostly just to have an excuse to avoid Steve's sad, sympathetic eyes. "Yeah, well. Got over that PDQ, the first and last time I asked my dad if he thought it could be possible."

"What did he say?" Steve looked like he already knew the answer and didn't want to hear it. But he was a nice guy, so he asked anyway.

"Before or after he laughed at me for being stupid enough to even make a hypothetical scenario where time travel was possible?"

Steve winced outright. "I'm sorry. The man you describe your father as…he's nothing like the man I knew during the war. And he was wrong. I meant everything I said. Bucky would've liked you. And I do think you could've been soulmates. You're a good man, Tony. I'm proud to have you as my friend."

Tony's first thought, naturally, was to respond with something glib and mildly insulting, because he didn't do well with compliments in general, and compliments from people he admired were terrifying.

He didn't do that, and not just because his goose was eying him. It was because Steve didn't lie. Or, rather, Steve did lie, but unless it was a life-or-death situation he couldn't lie for shit. So when he said he was proud to be Tony's friend, he'd meant it. Those big, blue puppy eyes were absolutely sincere.

Tony might be a lot of things, and most of them bad, but he figured the kind of man Steve was proud to call his friend, the kind of man Bucky would've liked, wouldn't be glib and insulting just because he didn't deserve nice things. So instead he said, "Thank you. And, you know. Me too. Likewise." He made a face. "That, uh, came out sounding a lot less honest than I meant it."

Steve laughed. It had sadness clinging to the corners but it was real enough. "That's okay, Tony. I believe you."

His goose obviously did too, because she bit Tony on the ear again. It was a bite of approval, though, so Tony just yelled a little bit.

Tony's goose stopped him from giving the Mandarin his home address on live television. Violently. Pepper called him a half hour later to tell him how unbelievably stupid it would have been, and how lucky he was that his Guide prevented it.

Tony was still holding the icepack to his black eye with his bandaged right hand, so it was a little hard to pick up the phone. Now that the rage had cooled, he could admit to Pepper that she was right, and not just because his goose was still glaring at him.

He was also smart enough to take her advice to make like a tree and leave Malibu for New York, though admittedly his goose chasing him into his bedroom to pack had a lot to do with it.

Definitely turned out to be the right call, considering how his mansion had been blown to hell not two hours later. J.A.R.V.I.S. called the cops before Tony's home slid into the ocean, so Tony got to watch the live footage of the ruins from his private floor at the California branch of Stark Industries.

The goose stood on the back of his chair and nibbled his hair in sympathy. It helped.

If this had happened even a year ago, Tony would've put on the suit and leapt into battle alone. It would have never occurred to him to ask for help. It definitely would never have occurred to him that anyone—even his three best friends—might actually give it if he did ask them. His goose would've had to chew off body parts before he'd have even considered it.

But that was before he gave Steve Rogers a standing invitation to stay wherever Tony happened to be, whenever Steve had the time. And before Steve started bringing Natasha Romanov, because when Clint wasn't with her he thought she spent too much time alone. And that was before Natasha started bringing Clint. And before Tony started inviting Rhodey, Pepper, Bruce and Carol too. Because why not make it a party if all his friends were coming anyway?

So, yeah. That was before he had more friends than he could count on one hand. And before Steve had told him Bucky should've been his soulmate.

And Bucky, Tony was absolutely certain, would've called his bestie Steve for help if terrorists had blown up his house. So Tony called Steve too.

Steve, both ironically and unfortunately, was on a mission for S.H.I.E.L.D. with Clint (though he still promised they'd be back for Christmas). He and Clint were incredibly relieved to know Tony was safe and alive. Tony probably shouldn't have been surprised by that.

Natasha was available and happy to help, along with and all of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s expansive, secret-squirrel resources.

Natasha and Tony went to Tennessee to check out a church bombing that had the Ten Rings' signature all over it, but that for some reason they'd never claimed.

The bogus FBI agent with the rage issues didn't kill them, and Tony's brilliant plan didn't destroy the file either, though it did singe Natasha's hair a bit.

It turned out that A.I.M, Aldrich Killian's company, had supplied the supposed suicide bomber with Extremis. Which, as it also turned out, tended to make the test subjects blow up a lot. Natasha, being brilliant, figured out that the Ten Rings was a front for the failed experiments, neatly hiding the truth and making A.I.M. and its version of the Super Soldier serum that much more marketable to a besieged and terrified government. Exploding two birds with one bomb. Nice.

Knowing who was responsible didn't prevent Killian's minion from hijacking Air Force One and stealing the president. And boy did they need another flyer on the team who lived on the same planet. Not that emergency, life-or-death in-flight geometry wasn't fun, but…no. No, it wasn't any fun at all.

Saving the president from an embarrassingly fiery death wasn't any fun either, but Natasha brought her S.T.R.I.K.E. team to the party, which upped the possibility of surviving Killian's ego bonfire by at least 12%. And in the end Rhodey got to prove to President Ellis why they gave him the mediocre bucks, Tony got to test out all of his suits, and he and Natasha got to hang out outside of work hours. So, total win.

Well, there was one snag: Brock fucking Rumlow.

Brock fucking Rumlow was the leader of the S.T.R.I.K.E. team when Captain America wasn't with them. Tony didn't get much of a look at him during the fight, but he seemed competent enough and had a gnarly prosthetic left eye. Natasha apparently trusted him to have her back anyway, so Tony followed her lead.

It went fine, right up to when it was all over except the smoldering. Rhodey had taken off with the president (literally. Tony had it on video), and Tony had nothing better to do so he wandered over to say hey.

When his goose appeared, Tony honestly expected her to waddle over and bite everyone, because she was a people person. But the instant Brock got a good look at her he burst out laughing.

"You gotta white one? Jesus Christ. You poor fuckin' bastard." He kept laughing, like the color of Tony's goose was the funniest thing he'd seen in years.

"What the fuck's wrong with a white goose?" Tony demanded, insulted on her behalf. Only Brock never got a chance to answer because the goose leapt for his face.

It was understandable, because rude. But this wasn't just white-feathered vengeance, his Guide was obviously trying to gouge out Brock's remaining eye. She clearly hadn't had much time for the entire S.T.R.I.K.E. team except for Natasha, but she expressed her disdain by avoiding them. Apparently that didn't include Brock.

Tony's goose hadn't gone to town on anyone like this since the Battle of New York. She hadn't done that to a human since Afghanistan. She hadn't even attacked Vanko with the sheer sadism she turned on Brock.

"Stop! Stop it!" Tony yanked her away from him and held her in his arms like the most deadly football in existence. The goose struggled so hard to get at Brock that without the armor Tony would've been mauled too.

"You're dead!" Brock screamed at the goose. He had one hand clamped to his face, where she'd possibly raked him to the bone. He snatched his gun out of its holster with the other, aiming at her and coincidentally Tony, since she was in his arms. "You're fucking dead, you bitch! I'll kill you!"

"Fine. Yes," Tony said over the goose, who was furiously honking and pecking his armor as she struggled. "You're right. Mia culpa. Never should've brought a goose to a gunfight. Though to be fair I can't control her."

"Calm down, Brock." Natasha moved into his line of sight, which also put herself between them. "You know Tony had nothing to do with it. Geese Guides are dangerous. They attack everyone."

"That fucking animal nearly blinded me!"

"Well, she didn't," Natasha snapped. "And shooting Iron Man is only going to get someone else shot when the bullet ricochets. You need to put the gun away, before this escalates."

Tony wasn't sure if that would be considered irony, but given the way Brock's team were now all aiming at him, the possibility of goose-related death was not actually zero. He stepped in front of Natasha, in case things went sideways. Of course she stepped to the side. "And, honestly, you should apologize. Judging someone because of their coloring is not cool. Honestly, I'd want to rip your eyes out myself."

"Do you ever shut up?" Brock snarled. "You're just like that fuckin' goose, aren't you?" He slid his handgun back into its holster without taking his glare off Tony. "You'll get yours, Stark. Mark my words. You and that fucking goose will get it."

"Charming." Tony gave him his best Fuck You smile, the kind he reserved for asshole members of the press and people he was about to shoot with his repulsers. "You really know how to make friends and influence people. So glad the safety of our planet is in your calm and capable hands."

Brock sneered at him, then spat at his feet, like they were in a Western. "I'm callin' for cleanup." He slid his gaze to Natasha. "One day soon you're going to have to choose a side, Widow. Better make sure it's the right one."

She smiled and stepped closer to Tony.

Brock scowled, but he didn't say anything. He just jerked his head and stalked off, the other three members of his team following like puppies.

Tony's goose finally relaxed.

Natasha petted the goose's neck, but she was watching Brock's retreating back. "She's a good judge of character. There's something off with him." She leaned close, lowered her voice. "Fury's asked me to check up on some things." She jutted her chin in Brock's direction. "Him included."

"Good choice," Tony said absently. In the distance, Brock had his phone out, probably talking to someone at headquarters. He glared at Tony the entire time, mouth quirked like he knew something Tony didn't.

The goose tried to prevent him from eliminating the target, but the Asset killed it per protocol and completed the mission.

Something about the blond who chased him to the rooftop was familiar, and the Asset knew he'd seen the weapon the blond flung at him before, somewhere. Strange. He was sure the goose hadn't injured him before he wrung her neck, so she hadn't told him anything. There was no reason for this familiarity. (There was no reason for him to feel sick after he eliminated the goose, either. He had followed orders.)

It. He'd wrung it's neck. He didn't know the animal, just like he didn't know the blond with the shield. He had no idea why the goose persisted in following him, other than its constant attempts at torment. The attacks were negligible, but the information that came with it was clearly intended to torture him. Why else would the creature tell him things that made no sense?

He was not American.

He belonged to Hydra and always had.

He was their Asset. He was not a good person. He was not a person.

He was a killer; an assassin; an instrument. He had never been anything else.

And who the hell was Bucky?

(The information itself was not harmful. The torture was in how badly he wanted it to be true.)

The goose must have managed to hit him, somehow. Making him think he knew the target or recognized his shield was just like her—it's—modus operandi. Yeah. That had to be it. He didn't know the blond.

The Asset should have kept the shield. Losing his favored weapon would have put the man at a disadvantage. Giving it back to him was an inexplicable weakness that he would be punished for severely, if his handler found out. The Asset would need to be careful not to mention it in his report.

He should have kept the shield, but he threw it back anyway. He told himself he did it because the shield would be unwieldly in his inexpert hand. He told himself it he did it because it was already distracting him, and he didn't want to be inattentive and give the goose more opportunity to strike. He told himself he did it to injure the blond. It had nothing to do with how holding it and almost remembering something was making him snap the hell out—

It especially had nothing to do with how he knew the little punk would need it. Nothing at all.

The goose didn't return when the Asset stopped the car of the primary target and her companions. The Asset had waited for it, priming himself to kill her—it!—before the animal had a chance to compromise him. But it never appeared.

The Asset told himself he should be pleased.

Turned out the fucking bird was just biding her time.

The targets, especially the primary one, were remarkably difficult to kill, though it would have gone better if he hadn't been forced to work with Russian mercenaries. But Pierce had wanted plausible deniability, and what better than the Winter Soldier's homeland to blame it on?

The Asset would have preferred to work alone, but he hadn't been asked his opinion. As predicted, the mercenaries' heavy-handedness made his job harder. They were unable to eliminate either of the secondary targets, and the large blond one prevented him from eliminating the primary target as well.

He hated amateurs.

The fight with the blond was…interesting. He hadn't expected him to be that strong or skilled. All the same, he managed to separate the target from his weapon.

Carrying the shield still felt familiar, which could only have been because he'd recently caught it and thrown it back when he'd first seen the target on a rooftop. He threw it back this time, too, because he wanted both his hands free and to deprive the target of his weapon. It wasn't that holding the fucking thing made him anxious as hell. Or how the blond (Stevie, Stevie, Stevie) looked lost without it, like a big dumb puppy….

No, nothing like that. His—the goddamn it—animal hadn't even come back yet. He hadn't let it get near him in a long time. She hadn't tortured him with stories about a shield he'd never used….

And that, naturally, was when the goose showed up.

The goose dropped on his head like a furious angel, scrabbling and pecking at his scalp and face and hitting him with her wings. The Asset (He was Bucky) staggered back under the unexpected onslaught, trying to get his hands in between the goose (his Guide) and his face. He needed to kill her, per protocol (he didn't want to). He was helpless like this, the target (Steve. His best friend and almost-soulmate with the black swan on his arm) could kill him easily. The blond and the primary target would get free.

She ripped his facemask off just before he finally grabbed her. Her claws left deep red gouges in his face that stung as they began healing. She'd head butted him hard enough to black his eye.

He clutched the goose flat to his chest with her wings flared, trying to keep her still. It felt like hugging her. He was not hugging her. She wasn't anything to him other than another source of pain. He was the Asset and Bucky was no one. Steve Rogers was his mission. He had to kill her so she'd leave him alone and stop hurting him with things that couldn't be true. So why was he hugging her instead of doing anything?

The blond was staring at him, his face white as fresh snow. "Bucky?"

The Asset backed up a step, still clutching the goose. "Wh-who the hell is Bucky?" he said, stammering with sudden fear. The goose had told him that was his name. How could this blond stranger know what the goose had told him?

The blond came closer. "Bucky. It's you," he said, reaching out like he couldn't help himself. He glanced at the shield still on his arm, then dropped it to the pavement and reached out again. "Oh, my God. It's you. It's really you. How…? I thought you were dead! What did Hydra do to you?"

"Don't touch me!" the Asset backed up again, because he wanted the man to touch him and he didn't understand why. It was terrifying. What was happening to him?

"It's me, Bucky. It's Steve. I'm not going to hurt you." Steve advanced another step. "Please, Bucky. You're my friend. You know me. You've known me your whole life." There were tears in his eyes, like he'd been seriously hurt. But the Asset had barely wounded him.

"No I don't!" It didn't make sense. It didn't make sense. "Why are you saying this? Stop! Stop it!"

"Please, Bucky!" Steve looked…he looked like the Asset had shot him. "That's your Guide. I'm your best friend. Look!" He grabbed the right sleeve of his jacket, yanked it hard enough to rip it right off his arm. "My Guide is a black swan. We go together. You're like my brother. Please, don't you remember me?"

The goose started struggling again, honking like traffic. She tried to flap her wings, scrabbling at his armor with her claws as she attempted to get to his face. She wanted to inflict more injuries, tell him more lies he wanted so badly to believe.

"No," he whispered to both of them. There were tears in his own eyes now. He was shaking, badly enough it was hard to keep his hold of the goose. "It's not true. It's not true!" His truth was the Chair and ice and pain. Anything else was a yawning pit, waiting for him to fall. (And then he'd look up and see his beloved friend's body getting smaller and smaller as he dropped down, down, down, into the snow—)

"Stop hurting me!" He threw the goose away from him, drew another gun as she flapped clumsily to the pavement. His arm wavered with the violence of his shaking. He held himself still with effort. He had to…to shoot…get rid of her…he needed….

"Bucky, no! Don't!" Steve crossed the remaining distance between them and grabbed Bucky's wrist. His hand was warm and didn't hurt. "Don't hurt her, please, Bucky. She's your Guide. Don't hurt her."

The Asset was still holding his gun. He could have shot Steve easily. He didn't do anything. Tears rolled down his face. "She hurts. Everything hurts. I don't know what's happening."

"It's okay," Steve said quickly. He gently pushed the Asset's arm down. The Asset allowed it. "We'll figure it out. Just, come with me. We need to find my friends and get out of here. I don't—"

Rumlow shot the goose. She fell over, bleeding, then disappeared.

The Asset screamed, shoved Steve away from him to turn his gun on Rumlow. He and the target were surrounded now, Hydra agents in S.H.I.E.L.D. and S.T.R.I.K.E uniforms swarming. The Asset had been inexcusably sloppy, so preoccupied that he hadn't even noticed they were nearby.

The primary target and the last of her companions were dragged into the center of the circle made by the agents surrounding them. There were too many weapons to avoid if they tried to run. Steve had his hands up, but he was only looking at the Asset. One of the agents kicked him in the back of his knee, forcing him to kneel on the ground.

"Lower your weapon, Asset," Rumlow said.

The Asset didn't. "You shot my Guide."

"What's the big deal?" Rumlow smirked like it was funny. "You know the fucking thing's just gonna come back. You should thank me, considering the number she did on your face."

The Asset had completely forgotten about the wounds on his face. They were immaterial. "You hurt her!"

"That's enough." Rumlow stalked over to him. "Holster your weapon and go to the vehicles to await further orders."

The Asset didn't move.

"Bucky, don't kill him! Please!" Steve sounded desperate, like he was a couple breaths from bursting into tears. "That's not you! You don't do this! Run! Just go!"

"Asset!" Rumlow barked. "Don't listen to the prisoner! Holster your weapon!"

The Asset did.

"Fucking finally," Rumlow said. "Go to the vehicles to await punishment." He was almost close enough to touch, now. The Asset had a sudden thought about crushing his throat. "Order comes through pain, Asset. Looks like you need reminding again."

"Bucky! No! Run! Run! Get outta here!" Steve shouted.

"Shut up!" Rumlow spun around and clubbed Steve on the side of his head with the butt of his Glock.

The Asset pulled his gun and shot Rumlow right through his prosthetic left eye.

Admittedly, Tony probably wouldn't have answered the phone if his goose hadn't literally chased him across the workshop to do it.

"I'm busy! Ow!" he groused, shaking out the hand his Guide just bit because he hadn't picked his phone up yet.

She lowered her head in a clear threat. She'd hopped up onto his workbench, so her beak was very near to Tony's eyes. He picked up the phone.

"They're not even in my contacts." Tony sighed, then blinked. "How can they not be in my contacts?" Intrigued now and a little worried, he tapped the phone to connect the call. "Who the hell are you and how the hell do you have my private number?"


"Steve?" Tony checked the number again but he hadn't been mistaken. "That you, Cap? What's going on? Are you okay?"

"It's me," Steve confirmed. "And I'm fine." He sure as fuck didn't sound fine. "I just really need your help."

"Of course," Tony said instantly, completely focused now. "Where are you? What happened?"

"Hydra infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D., Tony. They've been working secretly inside it since the end of the war, twisting it to their own agenda. That's why Fury had Hydra weapons on the helicarrier, when we went after Loki."

"Fury's Hydra? What the hell? How can that even work? They're Nazis."

"He's not with them," Steve said. And thank God for that. Tony had never particularly trusted Fury, but there was being a deceitful, lying son of a bitch for the greater good, and then there was being a deceitful, lying son of a bitch because you were working with fucking Nazis. "Hydra sent…" Steve swallowed. "They sent someone to assassinate him because he got suspicious and almost found them out. He survived. I'm with him, Hill and Natasha. They're the only S.H.I.E.L.D. people I can trust right now. I'm safe. You don't have to worry about me. That's not what I need your help for."

"Where are you?" Tony asked again. Steve didn't sound safe either. He sounded like he was barely holding it together and he was doling out information like it was rationed. "What the hell's going on, Steve?"

J.A.R.V.I.S. helpfully pulled up a holographic screen, to show a recent news item saying Steve, Natasha, and a very good-looking and apparently extremely capable guy named Sam were all criminals and should be considered to be Armed and Extremely Dangerous. What the fucking hell. "Holy shit! Why the fuck are the cops after you? What's going on?"

"Do you know about Project Insight?"


Steve took another breath like he was exhausted. Tony's fingers twitched with how badly he wanted to call the suit to him and go help his friends. "It's…The simple version is that Hydra is planning on launching three new helicarriers tomorrow, that are basically gun platforms they're going to use to kill anyone they think might oppose them. They have some kind of algorithm that supposedly lets them predict who might be a threat. They're going after kids, Tony! They're going after middle school students. We're all on the list too. You're near the top."

"Well, of course I am," Tony said distractedly. "Wait, you said helicarriers? I redesigned their engines! Fury promised me they'd be used for defense, not wholesale fucking murder! No. Fuck this. Fuck Hydra and the Nazis they rode in on." Tony strode out of the workshop, heading to the elevator and all the Iron Man suits he had left after Killian's blaze of glory. "I'm at the Tower. I can be in D.C. in 30 minutes. Just let me know where to find you."

"No, Tony. That's not what I called you for. We can handle the helicarriers. I need your help for something else. Please, please listen. It's…." Tony heard Steve swallow, realized with dull horror that he was trying not to cry. "Bucky's alive. I don't…. He was experimented on, at Azzano. Whatever they did…he must've survived the fall. And…Hydra took him. They took him and they…." Tony could practically hear Steve clenching his jaw over the phone. "He tried to kill me. He didn't know me at all. He didn't even know his own name. They did something to him. He hasn't aged, and he's as strong as I am. They replaced his left arm with this metal—" Steve's voice cracked, and then there was just hitching silence.

"I'm here, Steve. It's okay. Take your time." Tony wasn't sure Steve could hear him. He could barely hear his own voice over his raging heartbeat, but he couldn't just say nothing while one of the few people he loved came apart.

"Thanks." Steve sniffled, swallowed a couple more times. "Sorry," he rasped. It's been a long day."

"Sounds like it," Tony said. He went back into his workshop, because it felt more purposeful than standing in front of the elevator. Then, speaking more quietly because he didn't want to be cruel: "You're sure it was Bucky? I mean, he fell a very long way—"

"I know how far he fell! I watched him!" Steve snapped. "I'm sorry," he repeated a moment later, "but I know it was him. He looked the same. His voice was the same. And his Guide was there, Tony. She attacked him to make him stop fighting me."

"His Guide," Tony repeated. "You mean, the goose. Like mine." It wasn't a question because of course Tony knew the answer. He'd known that answer for thirty years. He stared at his Guide. She stared back at him.

"Yeah," Steve said softly. "The goose like yours."

"Where is he? Is he okay?" It felt like he still had the reactor in his chest, heart straining to beat against the weight.

"I don't know. I think…I think he started remembering, a little, after his Guide attacked him. He—" Steve broke off for another shuddering breath. "He killed the agents who were trying to capture us. He helped us escape. But he ran in another direction. He…."

"It's okay, Steve," Tony said, instead of screaming at him to finish the fucking sentence. "Take your time."

"We don't have time!" Steve exploded. Tony could hear him reigning himself in with clear effort. "He's so lost, Tony. He's scared, and alone, and I think he got shot, but I don't know. And I don't have time to find him. I can't help him. But, you can."

"Oh, God. He got shot? Is he okay?" Tony asked automatically. He leaned against the bench, reminding himself to breathe. He hadn't felt this scared since Happy was nearly blown up in Los Angeles. He had to hold the phone with both hands to keep it steady against his ear. "Was he bleeding?'

"I don't know. I couldn't tell! I'm sorry. It was so chaotic, and I had to make sure they didn't shoot Natasha and Sam…I don't know if he's hurt. I couldn't see."

"Not your fault," Tony said. "You did the right thing. I'm glad they're okay."

"Please, Tony," Steve said. "I need you to find him. Please. We can handle Hydra and the helicarriers, but I need you to save him. Please save my brother."

Tony looked at the goose, who still hadn't moved. She'd been remarkably non-violent through this whole thing, just watching. Waiting for him to make the right decision.

So Tony made the only decision he could: "Yeah. Yes. Yes, I'll do it."

"Thank you," Steve said on a breath full of relief and gratitude. "Thank you, Tony. I can't…I can't tell you how much—"

"You don't have to," Tony said quickly, before Steve actually started to cry. "You go do your world-saving thing while I whip out my trusty A.I. and find your long-lost goose not-boyfriend. I'll keep in touch, promise. So—"

"Tony, wait," Steve cut him off. "I need to tell you something."

"Well, that doesn't sound good."

"It's not." Steve took an obviously fortifying breath, which seemed to suck all the air out of Tony's lungs. "What happened to your parents…it wasn't an accident. Hydra killed them. And they used Bucky to do it."

Tony went still. "What?"

"I'm sorry," Steve said. "I should have…I know I should have told you that first. I just…. He didn't have a choice, Tony! Hydra made him. He was your dad's friend, he would never have hurt him if Hydra hadn't forced him to! They didn't even give him a name. They called him 'The Asset', like he wasn't human. As soon as he started to remember he protected me." Steve's voice had gotten quieter and quieter the longer Tony stayed silent. His last word was barely above a whisper. "Tony?"

"Still here," Tony said. His voice sounded like desert sand, like it belonged to someone else. He blinked tears, dashed them away angrily. "You're saying the man who might be my soulmate killed my parents."

"No," Steve said. His voice was strong again, ringing with Captain America conviction. "I'm saying that Hydra took your soulmate and turned him into a weapon."

"I used to build weapons," Tony said tightly. "I know they work the same, no matter who's wielding them."

"He's not a weapon, Tony!" Steve barked. "He's a person! And he's still your soulmate! His goose was there, the way she's always been. She would've never come back if he wasn't the same man inside."

"That's what I'm afraid of," Tony said, and hung up.

He threw the phone across the room. Since his company had made it, it unfortunately didn't shatter. At least it thudded satisfyingly on the floor.

Then Tony leaned against his lab bench with his face in his hands, trying to get himself under a semblance of control. "Fuck. Fuck me. Oh, God."

His goose gabbled at him.

Tony straightened, wiping his eyes.

His goose watched him quietly, tilting her head.

"Did you know?" Tony sniffed, swallowed. "Did you know he killed them?" He held out his arm.

His Guide waddled closer and jabbed him in the kidney with her orange knife of a beak.

"Ow!" Tony rubbed his side. It was hard to glare with his eyes welling over. She had known. She'd known all along and she'd never told him.

Tony swallowed, stricken. "You're my Guide. You're my Guide! Why didn't you tell me? Hey!" He slapped both his hands over his side when the goose stabbed at him again. She bit his wrist instead. "Ow! Jesus fuck, do you have to do that?" Tony shook out his hand, then jerked it away before she could reply to that by wounding him again. "What would I have done if I'd known then? Are you seriously asking me that? You know damn well what I would've done! I would've—!" He stopped, gritting his teeth. "I would've killed him. I would've hunted him through the bowels of Hydra like a goddamn dog and killed him."

His Guide pecked him again, slightly more gently this time. He barely noticed, rolling this hypothetical disaster of a past like spiked pinballs in his head. "Hydra would've killed me first, wouldn't they? Dumb, angry genius kid, running amuck and expecting the whole fucking world to kowtow because he's Tony fucking Stark." He sniffed, wiped his nose on the shoulder of his tee-shirt. "You were keeping me alive."

The goose bobbed her head and honked at him. She stepped closer and he flinched back, instinctively covering his side. He could already feel the bruising. "I'm not going to thank you, if that's what you're waiting for. You let me think it was my dad's fault for twenty three fucking years. No way am I thanking you for that. And now…." He took a breath, running his fingers through his hair. "I don't know what to do anymore. James Buchanan Barnes might be my soulmate and he killed my parents, and I don't know what the fuck I'm supposed to do. Fuck." He scrubbed his face with his palm. "Steve probably thinks I'm not going to find him now. God, I don't even know if I should—"

His words elided into a shriek as the goose launched herself at his head.

Tony hunched up with his arms in front of his face, the way he learned to do over long decades of abuse by domestic waterfowl. The goose scratched and pecked at him mercilessly, beating him with her wings.

It was all Hydra, she told him. Bucky didn't have a choice. It wasn't his fault.

"All right! All right! I get it! I get it! Stop, damn it! STOP!" The goose finally dropped to the floor and Tony lowered his arms, gasping and swearing. He wobbled over to where he kept his pack of wound cleansing wipes and snatched one, then dabbed at a scrape on his forehead and winced. "Fuck. Did you have to go all Freddy Kruger on my face? How am I going to impress my soulmate if I'm covered…." He stopped, pulling the cloth from his face to crumple it unheeded in his hand. He was on the verge of tears again. He felt like he was losing his mind. "He really is my soulmate," he said softly. "That's why you care so much. Bucky is my soulmate."

It wasn't so much a revelation, or even a realization, as a catastrophic derailment of any other possibility. Tony wasn't much into self-delusion anymore, since he'd literally had that beaten out of him by a large bird with a sharp beak and an attitude problem. But there was a difference between knowing and knowing, just like there was a difference between, say, getting shot through the heart and getting shot through the head. They'd both kill you, but one might feel a little worse.

His Guide flapped her ungainly way back onto his lab bench, smacksmacksmacked her way over to him, then stretched out her neck and bit his fingers.

Tony watched numbly as a thin line of blood seeped out where she'd broken the skin. "My soulmate killed my parents. What the fuck am I supposed to do about that?"

The goose pecked the back of his hand.

"Yeah, yeah. It wasn't his fault. You already said that." Tony went back to cleaning his wounds, smearing as much blood as he was cleaning because of the tremble in his hand. "Hydra forced him to, yadda. I know." He stepped out of the goose's range automatically when she went for him again. "Steve said he was the same man he always was, and you can peck me 'til my skin falls off and I'm still going to keep wondering if he always was the kind of man who just needed amnesia to murder anyone he was told to. I know!" he snarled a second later, when his Guide pecked his arm. "I know, all right? OW!" He whipped his hand back, then cleaned the new bite wound. "I know you said he didn't remember them. I heard you the first hundred times. But…they were harmless. They were just, harmless old people driving on some back road in the middle of the night. Even if he didn't remember Howard, how could he hurt people who couldn't do anything to him?"

"If I may, Sir," J.A.R.V.I.S. cut in just as the goose was spreading her wings and hissing like a particularly disgruntled cobra, "while you and your Guide were discussing Sergeant Barnes' culpability in the deaths of your parents, I was able to…" he paused decorously, "liberate certain files from S.H.I.E.L.D.'s servers that may offer assistance. I dare say it was very well hidden. It took some effort to ferret out."

"You're awesome, J, thanks," Tony said hollowly. A minute ago his guts had been molten with anger. Now they were curdling with dread. "What do you have?" He eyed the goose as he asked, ready to protect his beleaguered face, but she'd started preening her feathers. Obviously he'd been granted a reprieve.

"Several hundred written and video files pertaining to Sergeant Barnes. Unfortunately, none of them predate 2004, when it seems this branch of Hydra acquired Sergeant Barnes from the branch previously of the former Soviet Union."

For the life of him, Tony couldn't tell if he was relieved or disappointed. "Nothing from the night they died?"

"I'm sorry, Sir," J.A.R.V.I.S. said, sounding like he meant it. "There is some reference to an abandoned missile silo in Siberia, however, where it seems the earlier documents may have been stored. Apparently the majority of information regarding the…" another microcosm of a pause while he found the most descriptive term, "modus operandi of keeping Sergeant Barnes compliant was passed on orally. All the files digitally available referring to the 'Maintenance and Deployment of the Asset' are American."

"'Maintenance and Deployment'?" Tony parroted. "That sounds like he's a machine."

"As you say, Sir," J.A.R.V.I.S. confirmed distressingly easily. "From what I've gleaned, there is very little to indicate he was considered otherwise. Most of the documents and video are concerned with training and punishment."

"Punishment? What kind of punishment? What did they punish him for?" Steve's words to him on the phone came to mind, immediate and unwelcome:

They did something to him.
He's so lost.

"If I may, Sir, the short answer to that question would be, 'nearly everything'. A great deal of time and effort was devoted to insuring his compliance. There is video available, if you would like to see it."

'Like' was not the right word at all. More like the kind of curiosity cats died from. "Sure, J," Tony said, quietly gripping the bench he was leaning against. "Let's see."

"Very well, Sir. I believe it would be most elucidative to start from the first video, which was taken shortly after Sergeant Barnes became the property of the Washington D.C. branch of Hydra, as led by then-director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Alexander Pierce."

Tony did not miss noting J.A.R.V.I.S.' particular choice of words when describing Barnes' relationship to Hydra. Pretty clear whose side the A.I. was on. "Pierce. The current head of the World Security Council? That Pierce? Fuck me sideways." That kind of explained their eagerness to nuke Manhattan, come to think. It'd been the same plan back in World War II, after all. Why give up on a good idea?

Jesus. They must've thought the goddamn Chitauri invasion was mana from heaven. Unless they were working with Loki the whole time and he needed to drop that idea and step away with his hands up now before his head exploded.

"Yes, Sir. That Alexander Pierce. Shall I play the video?"

Tony nodded. He was already feeling a little numb just from the sudden Nazi overload. "Yeah. Do it."

J.A.R.V.I.S. did.

"Okay, okay. Stop. Please. That's it. I'm done," Tony rasped. If he had to watch another minute of his One True making those horrible yelping screams as his brain got fucking electrocuted, he was going to puke. Hell, he might puke anyway.

It wasn't quite so bad…Okay, no. It was just as fucking terrible when he'd watched them defrost Bucky until he toppled out of that frozen aquarium and into the Hydra agents' arms. When the handheld camera followed them down the hallway, Tony had been naïve enough to think that they might be dragging him somewhere decent, like a cot with a blanket or a warm bath. But instead they dropped him, soaking and trembling, into this thing like a demonic dentist's chair and just left him until his suit warmed him up enough to stop his miserable shivering. His look of wary hope when he realized the people with him were American was heartbreaking.

Tony had watched his soulmate almost escape only to get shot by that fucker Pierce, and then be electrocuted over and over and over until his Guide stopped attacking them. The only tiny, bright speck in a dark universe of awful was Brock fucking Rumlow losing an eye.

He made it up to the sixth wipe before Bucky's hoarse, agonized and bewildered screaming made his gorge rise like a tidal wave and it was all Tony could do not to lose the smoothie he'd had for dinner all over his workshop floor.

J.A.R.V.I.S., who was the most beautiful, awesome A.I. ever, stopped the playback instantly and then blanked the screen so Tony didn't have to see his soulmate's face fixed in a rictus of agony.

Tony was bent over, gasping with his hands on his thighs. Dear God, he couldn't even watch it happening, and Bucky had lived this. Over and over and over again. For decades.

The first sob that escaped his throat was a complete surprise. And then Tony was on his knees, weeping with both his hands over his mouth, as if that could somehow keep his anguish trapped inside him.

His face. God, Bucky's face each time, after what they did to him. That helpless, hopeless mixture of confusion and pain. Pierce had to explain the same fucking thing over and over again because Bucky couldn't remember it. He couldn't remember anything. He was so uncertain when he told Pierce that his gaslighting tattoo was wrong.

Steve said Bucky couldn't remember his name. This was why. Hydra kept ripping it out of him.

Afghanistan was nothing compared to this. This was Tony watching his soulmate unravelling.

The goose slapped quietly over to him and preened his hair.

"I know," Tony said. He swallowed thickly, tasted bile. "I know. He didn't do it. How could he? How could he do anything—" Damn it, he was sobbing again. "I'm sorry," he sniffled, wiping his eyes with the heel of his hand. He was apologizing to both of them, his Guide and Bucky. "I should never have thought…." He pulled in a long, shuddering breath. "Hydra killed my parents. And they've been torturing my One True since before I was born." He swallowed again, wiped his nose on the hem of his shirt, but finally he could lift his head. "We need to save him. We have to save him." He grabbed the edge of the table to pull himself back to his feet, then went to his phone and picked it off the floor. He sent a text to the number Steve had used to call him from: I promise I will find him.

Once it sent, Tony pocketed his phone and took his shirt off. No way was he going to find his soulmate in something covered with snot and tears. He looked down at the goose. "Where is he? You know where he is, right? Guides can do that—Ow!"

Yes, his goose knew where Bucky was. Though in retrospect Tony might have reconsidered baring his torso before asking.

The Asset—no, the soldier (No! Bucky, Bucky, Bucky)—ran, limping and gasping, as soon as he saw the targets (not targets) were able to escape. He wanted to go with them, but he got separated, and….

And he didn't know. His goose hadn't come back and he'd just run and his feet had carried him here. He didn't even recognize the building until he'd gone through the cavernous lobby space to the stairs leading underground. Where they kept the vault.

Normally he was better at paying attention. But his goose and the target (Steve. Steve. My Stevie) had done something to his head and now it felt like there was nothing but a bowl of fragments where his mind used to be, hopelessly mixed up and spilling everywhere.

But he knew—too late—that he didn't want to be here. The Chair was here. This is where the technicians worked on his arm and prepared him for Cryo. This was where they shot his goose and they hurt him.

He didn't want them to hurt him again. His ribs were cracked, maybe broken, where two bullets had hit his armor at close range. That hurt enough already. He didn't want more pain. He never wanted more.

The only one who had any right to hurt him was his goose, and Rumlow had killed her.

The…Bucky…hated Rumlow. He'd never even dared to think that before. But he did. He'd always hated him. He was very, very glad Rumlow was dead and he'd caused it.

Bucky hated all of them. Everyone who'd ever hurt him or made him hurt people when he didn't want to do it. They took his goose and his memories and he hated them so much it burned worse than the broken bones in his chest. He wished any of them were with him right now, so he could kill them. He wanted to put them in the Chair and rip them apart the way they'd done to him. But he was alone.

He couldn't kill them, but he could make sure they never used the Chair on him or anyone again.

Bucky lurched over to the Chair, wrenched off the metal pieces they used to electrocute him and threw them across the room. It made his ribs sing with pain but it didn't matter, he was used to it. He went for the arm restraints next, then the housing and wires, and then everything else. He knew he shouldn't be moving like this, not with the kind of injuries he had. His goose would beat him up for it, but she wasn't there.

He was fine anyway, right up until he ripped the chair legs away from the bolts securing them to the floor. One twist and heave earned him a sudden, breathtaking blast of pain that dropped him like a brick. He landed heavily on his side, then spent a few terrible moments on his back, just trying to breathe.

He needed to get up. He needed to leave before anyone came back and found him. He'd rather die than be recaptured, but he really didn't want to die.

Bucky closed his eyes, breathing shallowly through the pain. If his ribs hadn't been broken, they sure as hell were now. He could give himself a minute. Just a minute to center himself before he moved and the pain got worse again.

Someone yanked on his hair then bit his ear. Bucky gave a tiny, breathless yelp and opened his eyes.

His goose stared down at him.

"You're back." Bucky grinned tiredly at her, lifting his trembling hand to pet the soft feathers on her chest.

She endured that stoically for a moment, then bit him on the nose. She was proud of him, which felt wonderful. But the damn bite still hurt.

"Ow! Hey!" His protest was barely more than a breathless whisper, but the pain in his chest wasn't nearly as consuming as before. He figured he could get up now, if he tried. It'd hurt, but he'd had worse pain. Much worse pain. He'd be all right. He just needed to rest so he could heal. But not here. It couldn't be here.

He rolled himself onto his stomach then pushed onto his hands and knees. And his goose immediately bit him at the bend of one elbow, which almost sent him right back to the floor. She didn't want him to leave.

That didn't make any sense. He had to go. He couldn't be there when Hydra came for him. He was too enclosed in here, and not at full strength. Chances were they'd recapture or kill him, and he didn't know what would be worse.

"I'm not staying. I might not be able to fight my way out."

She hissed in irritation, then pecked him in the ass.

He glowered at her. "No."

The goose flew at his head, honking loudly.

She battered him with her wings like she was…like she was boxing his ears. He remembered that, how it felt. It felt terrible, but for a moment he was so stunned with recognition that he didn't even think to protect himself. He just crouched there like an idiot and let her scrabble at his shoulder and jab him in the side of the face. She raked his neck with her claws and he finally started moving.

She'd left furrows in the leather of his armor, and his neck and earlobe were bleeding by the time she finished driving him, still on all fours, like a lame donkey to the wall.

That would have been deeply embarrassing if Bucky wasn't hurting too much to care. He leaned his shoulder against the wall, laughing weakly with just a touch of hysteria. It made him clutch his ribs and hiss in pain. He got himself seated clumsily with his legs splayed out and the knobs of the safety deposit boxes digging into his spine.

His goose honked quietly at him, settled her feathers with a little shake, then waddled into the V of his legs and sat, resting her head on his thigh. He put his hand on her back, feeling the smooth warmth of her feathers. "I don't understand. Hydra will find me."

The goose nibbled at his leg. He would be safe, she told him. His soulmate was coming.


He trusted her. She was the one, brightly painful constant in what few, fragmented memories he had. She hurt him all the time, but she also protected him, and saved him, and had given him back his name.

He couldn't remember what a soulmate was, but he trusted her.

"All right," he said. He stopped fighting his pain and exhaustion and closed his eyes.

It was a twenty minute flight in the suit from New York to D.C., slightly longer because of the backpack he was carrying like a kangaroo pouch. Then he got to add a whole agonizing thirty minutes by landing at the D.C. branch of Stark Industries to purloin a company car. He sat his suit in the passenger seat, with his goose perched on the headrest like a ridiculous excuse to use the HOV lane.

And course traffic was a nightmare, even in the late evening. It was fully dark by the time he slogged his way downtown. God only knew where his soulmate was, or even what shape he was in.

Well, God and his Guide. She led him like a very loud, inarticulate GPS, leaning her long neck left and right and honking when he needed to turn. They ended up somewhere on Northwest 5th Street, passing a completely nondescript, unused building that had probably been a bank, when she started flapping her wings and honking like a foghorn.

There was no legal parking anywhere nearby, so Tony just drove onto the fucking sidewalk. His soulmate was inside that building; Tony didn't give a shit if the car got towed.

He opened the passenger door and the goose plopped out, then tilted her pear-shaped body forward and ran in front of him. Tony set his armor on sentry duty in the doorway, grabbed his pack and ran after her.

The front door was locked, but Tony had thought of that and brought one of S.I.'s lock pick guns. They'd been standard S.H.I.E.L.D. issue since 2010. After what Steve had told him, he was clearly going to have to rethink the distribution.

The idea of Hydra using his stuff and doing the same kind of shit the Ten Rings had with it made him sick, but right then he had other things to worry about.

His Guide ran across the dark, eerily empty bank lobby, Tony trotting behind. It looked sinister in its complete normalcy, waiting patiently in the beam from his flashlight as if all the employees would be back in the morning. Only the lack of nameplates on the desks and the faded posters gave any sense that this place had been used and used up once upon a time. Tony had no idea what made his soulmate come here, instead of leaving the city. Bucky had grown up in New York, so why hadn't he gone home?

All the reasons Tony came up with were too awful to contemplate, so he didn't.

There were stairs at the far end of the lobby, black and echoing as he and the goose made their way down. Her feet sounded like bullets as she hopped from stair to stair. She waited in front of the thick, fake wood door at the bottom.

This was it, then. Tony swallowed and grabbed the handle, turning it slowly and quietly so as not to spook—or alert, if they weren't friendly—anyone on the other side. He carefully pushed the door open, then squinted at the sudden flood of light.

They were down a hallway from what must have been the vault for the safety-deposit boxes. Only it looked repurposed as some kind of medical examination room. There were two screens on the walls showing outlines of a generic male body, and a portable I.V. stand with wheels but empty of bags. There were the twisted remains of what had probably been a chair bolted to the floor before someone destroyed most of it, pieces scattered like an explosion. And there was James Buchanan Barnes slumped against the far wall, with his eyes closed and a goose sitting between his legs with her head on his thigh.

One of his hands rested loosely on the goose's back, the other beside him, open and empty. Tony couldn't tell if he was breathing.

"Oh, God. No! No!" The denial burst from his throat in a cry of pure, animal terror. This was his soulmate and he hadn't even met him and he was supposed to keep him safe and Notdeadnotdeadpleasenonononono

Bucky's eyes flew open. He leapt to his feet, had a gun drawn, cocked and pointed faster than Tony could even register that he'd moved. He hadn't even disturbed his goose, though he'd clearly annoyed her. She levered herself to her feet with a disgruntled honk and pecked him the ankle. It looked hard enough that Tony was sure Bucky would feel it through his boot. Bucky's mouth barely twitched.

Tony immediately dropped his pack and lifted his hands. "I'm not going to hurt you," he said, doing his best to keep his voice calm and steady. It'd be easier if his heart wasn't trying to drill an exit via his newly-renovated chest.

Bucky didn't answer. The gun was in his left hand, which was straight and steady as one of Clint's arrows, despite how his eyes were fixed on Tony's Guide. But Bucky's right hand was trembling and supporting part of his weight against the wall. "Your goose looks like mine," he said. His voice sounded like honey-covered gravel.

"That's right," Tony said, nodding. Nothing changed in Bucky's expression, but maybe Tony hadn't made up that hint of uncertainty in Bucky's voice. "We, uh, we both have geese. The same kind, I mean. I mean, they're both white ones," he stammered, abandoned by every shred of his wit or charm. "That's why I'm here. Oh, my name's Tony."

"Tony," Bucky murmured, eyes drifting as if he were trying to place the name. Then he blinked, squared his shoulders and lifted his head. It made him look absolutely ferocious, but Tony could tell the effort it took him as if it were his own. "Are you my handler?"

"No. No I'm not," Tony said immediately. He knew about handlers because of the Avengers' two resident S.H.I.E.L.D.—former S.H.I.E.L.D.—agents, but he somehow doubted any of Bucky's had ever brought him mini donuts or sent him Christmas cards. "I'm not with Hydra. I'm here to help you get away from them. I'm your soulmate," he added, in case that meant anything.

Bucky had been still before. Now he could have been carved from stone. He didn't even twitch when his goose started hammering his foot with her beak. "You're…my friend?"

"Yes," Tony said, swallowing down the sudden, unwelcome thickness in his throat. He kept his hands up, but he wasn't worried about the gun anymore. Maybe because his heart was too busy breaking to multitask. Bucky sounded like he'd never heard the word 'friend' before. "I'm your friend. I'm here to help you." He risked a step closer, then another when his own goose just casually waddled over to Bucky's.

The two geese did a remarkably cute greeting ritual with a lot of gabbling and bobbing heads. Tony was sure they'd be hugging if it were physically possible. They preened each other instead.

"See?" Tony said, gesturing at them. "We're supposed to be doing that. Uh, not preening each other. I mean, being friends. Because we're soulmates."

"Soulmates," Bucky repeated softly. He swayed on his feet.

"Bucky!" Tony ran the rest of the way to him, forgetting completely about the gun still aimed dead center of his chest. He stopped again within easy reach, because he didn't know where he could touch without hurting him, or if Bucky would accept contact at all. "You're hurt. Please, let me help you."

"Just my ribs," Bucky said with alarming dismissiveness. Then, "She told me that too. That you're my soulmate." He still held his gun, but it was pointing halfway to the floor. At best he'd crease Tony's sneaker if he fired. His face reminded Tony painfully of his phone call with Steve. He looked lost, just like Steve had told him. Like a man completely unfamiliar with hope. "You really…you're really going to help me?"

Tony nodded so vehemently he made himself dizzy. "Yes. Yes, Bucky. My goose led me here from New York just to find you. I want to help you more than anything." That was true to the marrow of his bones.

Bucky made an aborted move, like he'd been about to touch Tony but didn't quite dare. "You know my name."

Tony's breath hitched. He swallowed that down too, ruthlessly wiping his eyes. The last thing Bucky needed was some almost-stranger blubbering all over him. "Your full name is James Buchanan Barnes. Bucky's your nickname."

Bucky's eyes went huge, then all at once he dropped the gun and lurched close enough to grab Tony's right arm. Tony flinched automatically, but Bucky's grip didn't hurt. He was gentle as he pushed up the sleeve of Tony's Megadeth baseball shirt, then just stared at his soulmark, cradling Tony's forearm in his hands. Bucky traced the picture of the goose with his flesh-and-blood fingers, focused as if his life depended on it.

"It's real," Tony said quietly, guessing that was what Bucky was searching for. "Ask your goose. It's real, I promise. I'm your soulmate, Bucky."

Bucky made a soft, desperate noise, then threw his arms around Tony and yanked him in. He put his forehead on Tony's shoulder and grabbed fistfuls of the back of his shirt, hanging on for dear life.

Tony hugged him back, trying to be mindful of his ribs. Bucky tightened his grip until Tony got the point and held on just as fiercely.

"Shh, shh," Tony murmured. "I got you. I'm right here. It's okay." Bucky wasn't crying, but he shook like he was. Tony was definitely crying, and not just because he felt like if he wasn't holding Bucky so tightly the man might break apart.

He was holding his soulmate.

Tony knew about that glorious moment when you first touched you One True. Everyone did: that sudden, astonishing feeling like you'd just been completed, a missing half slotting into place.

Tony never thought he'd have that with anyone, not after more than four decades. He wasn't sure he even deserved a soulmate, despite his goose's insistence otherwise. But here he was: heartbroken and sad, and so, so scared for the man in his arms, and yet so full of hope and happiness it was like his tears were just shedding the excess he couldn't contain.

Bucky let out a deep, soft breath. "My soulmate," he said, like it meant everything.

They held on to each other for a very long time.

(At some point Tony's goose bit Bucky, and Bucky's goose bit Tony. It hurt like fuck and Tony didn't even care.)

It was completely unsurprising that Bucky, despite his broken ribs, amnesia, general exhaustion and how he'd just escaped from Hydra that fucking afternoon, insisted on going to help Steve stop Hydra from launching the hellicarriers. What was, actually, surprising, was that Bucky's goose didn't immediately beat the shit out of him for suggesting it.

Well, both their geese beat them up a bit, but only to let them know that they thought it was a spiffy idea, apparently. Fucking geese.

The number of Steve's burner phone didn't work anymore when Tony tried to call him, which was also completely unsurprising. Unfortunately it didn't mean Tony could shrug and say oh well, they tried, let's go home, because of course their geese knew where Steve was.

What the hell. Seriously. They weren't even Steve's Guides.

It wasn't that Tony didn't want to help. Of course he did. But Steve had specifically told him to stay away from the fight and look after Bucky. This was doing the exact opposite. He was letting Steve down and might get his wounded, traumatized, barely-escaped, almost-soulmate best buddy killed to boot. But the geese wanted them to help Steve, so away they went.

Fucking geese.

(Okay, maybe seeing Steve's face when Bucky remembered him was kind of worth it.)

Fury was not only alive, the son of a bitch, but remarkably forgiving, considering Bucky had perforated him just a few days before. Maybe it was because Fury was already familiar with mind fuckery, both thanks to Loki and Fury's own particular brand of manipulative bullshit.

Or maybe he just didn't want to get attacked by two wrathful geese at once. Hill certainly hadn't enjoyed it. On the plus side, she only told Steve to lock Bucky up once.

The worst part of that was how Bucky just stood there, looking like a sad university student in the clothes Tony stole from Steve's cache at the tower for him. He was all bundled up in Steve's black hoodie with the shield on the front, with his hands jammed in the kangaroo pocket and staring at the floor. Tony's arm around his waist didn't help, not even Steve's hand on Bucky's shoulder. The geese appreciated their effort, but Bucky only lifted his head when his Guide pecked him.

They were going to have to work on this misplaced guilt thing, obviously. Luckily, Tony had a bit of experience with that. Just a tad.

Bucky's goose remained unimpressed with Hill, but she'd pecked Natasha like they were best buds right off the bat, then practically ripped Steve's leg off with her enthusiastic greeting. Steve put up with it with the same soft, wondering smile he'd had when Bucky hugged him.

Steve had also met his soulmate the same day all this shit started going down, because Captain Extra couldn't do anything like a normal person. Swan "Seriously, my name is Sam" Wilson seemed like a pretty decent guy. The way his eyes lit up when Tony casually mentioned revamping his wings made Tony like him immediately. Tony's Guide thought he was terrific, of course, but she was very people-oriented.

(Bucky's goose pecked Swan "For fuck's sake, it's Sam" Wilson instantly, but that wasn't exactly a surprise.)

It was ironic, because they could all possibly be marching to their deaths the next morning, and Tony had never seen Steve look so happy.

Well, he could understand that. He'd never felt this happy himself.

They didn't die.

In fact, everything went down so easily it was sad. Sad for Hydra. Tony's personal favorite moment was when a bunch of Hydra assholes rushed at him and Bucky, then saw the geese.

"Fuck!" the asshole in the lead yelled, "there're two of them!" and they all immediately dropped their weapons and surrendered.

"That happened a lot during the war," Bucky said.

The helicarriers never got off the ground. Pierce died, which was too bad because Tony wanted to beat him up a bit first. He would've had to get in line behind Steve, though, so maybe there woudn't've been anything left to hit anyway.

Natasha released all of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s and Hydra's dirty little secrets to the wild of the internet, and Tony made sure to have J.A.R.V.I.S. grab anything mentioning the Winter Soldier or Sergeant James Barnes. He didn't want to actually look at it, but he would. He needed ammunition to make sure the world knew Bucky was forced to do Hydra's wetwork as America's longest-serving P.O.W. He also wanted to know everything his One True had endured.

Tony wasn't particularly concerned about Bucky being exonerated. He'd brought down a gang of pseudo-terrorists and helped save the President's life, after all. And that'd been before joining Steve's Hydra Extermination Squad. The guy kind of owed him one.

"Everything's going to work out fine, right?" he asked his goose. He retracted the gauntlet of his suit, then crouched to make it easier for her to bite him. "C'mon, don't hold out on me here. I know you've been dying to bite me all day."

He could swear she rolled her beady blue eyes before going back to preening the other goose.

Bucky laughed, but when Tony stood up there was nothing but warmth in his smile. It was breathtaking.

"It is gonna be fine, Sweetheart. We don't need our Guides to tell us that," he said, and kissed him.

The instant two soulmates touch for the first time has often been directly compared to a life-changing religious experience. Some have described it as two halves of one soul finally joining, or the first time in their lives that they felt truly whole.

Guides disappear at this moment, since they have fulfilled their destiny and are no longer required. Sometimes—rarely—they will reappear at moments of extreme joy or desperation. A Guide's sudden, momentary presence to welcome their former charges' newborn has been occasionally reported. Guides appearing in times of terrible need are far from unknown. Guides will sometimes come to offer comfort in the few moments before death.

But normally, they vanish into the vast ether that makes up the commonality of our existence, remaining only as memories and the soulmarks that bear their forms.

Except for geese. Geese do what they want.

The geese never actually disappeared. People started calling Iron Man and the Winter Soldier "The Flock", because when the Avengers assembled the geese always went with them. Bucky was used to it, because he'd been called that before. (He remembered it. Since he'd met his soulmate his memories had been coming back like crazy.)

Tony thought it was hilarious, of course. That was one of the many, many things Bucky loved about him.

Their Guides did attack them a hell of a lot less, though. That was pretty swell. He figured it was 'cause when Bucky found his soulmate, his goose found hers too. The geese were just too happy to want to dump on him or Tony anymore.

Bucky understood that. He was pretty damn happy himself.