Maria was already running late before the traffic ground to a halt.
She quickly got out, hand over her holster just in case. Glanced up -- no obvious signs of an imminent alien invasion. Stood still for a moment -- no tremors travelling through the ground that might imply a subterranean attack. Something ahead, then? She hoped she wasn't about to be an eyewitness to another superhero battle. Having to give statements to the cops and fill in the S.H.I.E.L.D. paperwork, with its accusatory tone that came across all of-course-you-should-have-somehow-stopped-it-singlehandedly, really wasn't what she needed today.
Other people were starting to leave their vehicles too. She considered shouting a warning, until she realised what had caused all the commotion in the first place: the video billboard up ahead had cut to a live news feed from Blackwater. The crowd gathering around her cheered as two people who had probably never met before embraced and kissed.
The crowd eventually began to disperse, as the billboard switched to an ad from the wildlife reserve about how if you met your soulmate there, you could get a 75% discount on using the place as a wedding venue. She tutted to herself; all the big wetlands were just meat markets throughout the winter these days, people who liked the look of each other perfectly happy to pair off if any old goose so much as looked at them a little strangely.
It wasn't that Maria actively disbelieved in the Soulmate Goose -- indeed, it was considerably more plausible than many ideas that she knew from reading S.H.I.E.L.D. files were indisputably true -- but she didn't actively believe either. And she certainly had a healthily cynical view of modern society's attitudes towards it.
She got out her phone, sending off a quick message to Director Fury, blaming the usual DC traffic for her tardiness. If it had been anyone else, she would have been a bit more specific about the cause, but the Director was odd about the Goose. He would generally become very quiet if the topic arose, but he was also very short with anyone who expressed the slightest scepticism. She wondered sometimes if he had had some sort of encounter that ended badly, maybe back in the Cold War, across the East-West divide; even if you did believe, the world was complicated enough that being honked at a few times was no guarantee of a happy ending.
As she turned to get back into her SUV, however, she found her way blocked by a goose.
It honked at her loudly.
She told herself that it was just an escaped pet -- despite their obvious unsuitability as domestic animals, geese were wildly popular among those who believed that the Soulmate Goose was a disembodied spirit that possessed the nearest suitable fowl when the time came for it to do its mysterious duty, rather than a single supernatural creature with teleportation and limited-scope metamorphosis amongst its powers -- but there was a strange look in its beady eyes that made her wonder if maybe it was the real thing after all.
She took a step towards it. The goose honked even louder, and flapped its wings aggressively.
The driver stuck behind her SUV blasted his horn, keen to get going again now that the traffic ahead had cleared. She glared at him.
"Look," she said, feeling ridiculous for trying to negotiate with a bird, "maybe you are the real deal, but really all you're doing here is causing a tailback, and I have an important briefing that I'm already late for so if we can do this another time that would be really, really great ..."
The goose honked again and jumped straight up at her, before retreating again. It was almost as though it knew that S.H.I.E.L.D., just as any other large employer, was obliged to offer extraordinary leave of absence in these sorts of scenarios. The forms for that, though, were even worse than the ones for superhero incidents. Not least because you had to get your supposed soulmate to co-sign everything. And if it turned out it was just a regular goose, you lost a day's paid vacation even if you'd made it in just a little late.
"I really don't have time for this," Maria told the goose.
"Deputy Director Hill? Is there a problem here?"
Oh great, now Rogers was here, on his regular jogging route, no doubt. "I'm fine, thank you, Captain," she said through gritted teeth.
She hadn't really been aware of the crowd that had begun to form around her until she heard the whispers start: "Wait, is that Captain America?" "Who's she, though?" "Do you think that's, y'know, the goose, or just a goose?"
The goose began to flap and honk even more excitedly than it had before. It took her a moment to realise that its attention had shifted to Rogers.
"Well, this is embarrassing," she said. "I mean, I'm pretty sure this is just a regular goose, when it all comes down to it."
"I'm sure you're right, but back in the day, in Brooklyn, people used to take things like this at face value."
And before she knew it, he was kissing her. The goose, the crowd, the information she was supposed to be passing on right now at headquarters about tech proliferation, all melted away. It was as though the clouds had parted to reveal a summer sun behind them, as though fireworks were going off over the biggest Fourth of July parade she'd ever seen, but it was just her lips, and his lips.
"Yeah, OK," Rogers said -- she was going to have to stop calling him Rogers, wasn't she? "It's never been like that before."
"Not even with ..."
"Peggy?" he said. "No. I mean, we didn't know any better; geese of any type were in short supply in the European theatre, so I guess we kind of assumed that eventually ..."
She was dimly aware of wild applause all around them, began to think about how some of the bystanders were clearly filming the whole thing on their Stark cellphones. But before she could pursue the idea that she was inevitably going to become a celebrity now, her own phone began to scream at her.
"Hill," she said quickly.
"Where the hell are you?" Fury was saying before she'd even managed to finish the single syllable of her name. "I have two congressmen, a senator, three special liaison officers and the goddamn Secretary General of the UN waiting for you to tell them what to be scared of this week."
"Believe me, sir, I'm well aware of that," Maria said. "But, ah, I've been-- that is--" She swallowed. "The thing is, sir, I may need to take a Goose Absence."
Fury's tone shifted instantly. "That's fantastic news," he said. "Congratulations. Who's the lucky guy? Or gal," he added quickly. "Anyone I know?"
Maria passed the phone to Steve.
"Hello, Nick," he said.
He passed the phone back to her with a raised eyebrow. "I'm not sure, but I think he may have fainted."
Maria took his hand. Her fingers tingled. "Come on, Captain," she said, "I'm afraid you'll have to wait to finish your jog. I'm going to need you to help me fill in a whole mess of paperwork."
As she ushered him into the passenger door, she looked around for the goose, but it was nowhere to be seen.