It was Goose that first noticed what Zachary was doing. Or, more specifically, not doing. How Zachary was avoiding using his bionic arm.
At first he wondered if it was just reflex, like how an injury could make a person favor a limb even after it was healed. Granted, Zachary had been unconscious for a great deal of the time he'd been down an arm, but there had been enough time between them getting him back to BETA and stabilized, and when they had been able to fit him with a new arm that it wasn't unreasonable that such reflexes would develop.
So Goose didn't say anything the first couple of times he noticed Zachary doing things like reaching across his body awkwardly to pick something up with his real hand when his bionic hand was closer and in a much better position. A leftover reflex, he thought, one that would gradually fade away as Zachary got used to having two hands again.
Except that wasn't what was happening. Not only was it not fading, but there was a pattern, Goose noticed, as he started paying more attention. When they were in the field on a mission, there was none of the awkward avoidance. Zachary moved as fluidly as he always had, using his bionic arm as easily as his real one. When they were somewhere that was usually safe, somewhere like BETA Mountain, or Longshot, that's when he started favouring his real hand. And the couple of times Goose had glimpsed Zachary interacting with Zach Jr or Jessica, he'd held his bionic arm so still that it was almost as if it had been deactivated.
It wasn't just some left over reflex from the injury, he decided. Zachary was doing this deliberately and consciously.
Zachary was scared of his arm.
And it was getting worse, Goose realized, when he overheard Zachary making excuses for why he had to cancel a planned visit from his kids.
This was, Goose knew, something that, if he was strictly adhering to rules and regulations, he probably should be reporting to Walsh and the other higher ups. His gut instinct though – along with past experience – told him that would probably only take a bad situation and make it even worse. There was too much chance of it getting Zachary benched whether that was what was best for him or not.
He considered talking to Zachary alone about what he'd noticed, but Goose knew what his strengths were and the kind of careful and delicate conversation that would have to be was not one of them. Empathy he had, but it had never been something he was good at expressing and words had never been his weapon of choice.
Luckily the same couldn't be said about his teammates.
The next time the three of them were alone in one of Longshot's labs, he brought it up to them. It turned out that he wasn't the only one who had noticed something was wrong.
"And we're surprised about this?" Doc asked. "I'd be twitchy too if my own arm got taken over by an evil psychic force, tried to kill me, then built itself a robot body to try and kill everyone else."
"There's twitchy and then there's this," Goose argued. "Yeah, he's been holding it together when we're in the field, but I saw him flinch when Zach Jr grabbed him by the left arm to get his attention and just yesterday he was making up excuses why Jess couldn't come for a visit on her next school break."
"And it's not just that he's not using his arm," Niko said, her expression serious as she leaned back against the table where the ubiquitous coffee maker was. "He's more guarded too. Even without using my implant I can usually get a general sense of people's emotions if they're not consciously shielding. But I haven't been able to pick anything up from Zachary when we're not on a mission since he was cleared to go back in the field."
Doc frowned at that, but still offered, "Maybe he just needs some more time?"
Goose and Niko exchanged a silent look at that. Doc sighed. "Yeah, I don't think so either."
So problem acknowledged. Now, Goose thought, they just needed to come up with a solution. Not necessarily his strong suit when it didn't involve shooting someone.
"We talk to him," Niko said decisively. "All of us. Together." She smiled faintly. "Less chance of him denying there's a problem that way."
Goose nodded, relieved that they were on the same page about this. "Best time would be when we're on the way back from a mission. That way there shouldn't be any distractions and he can't get away."
"Can't get away?" Doc repeated with raised eyebrows. "We're just planning on talking to the man, Goose, not hog tying him for an interrogation."
"If he wanted to talk about it, we would've already had this conversation," Goose pointed out.
"Goose isn't wrong," Niko said. "The whole way Zachary is dealing with this so far is avoidance. He's going to want to keep doing that unless we give him no choice."
"I suppose you're right," Doc admitted. He took a deep breath. "So we have a plan. Excellent. Hopefully one that won't backfire on us spectacularly."
"Don't worry, Doc," Goose said, clapping him on the shoulder. "We'll keep the hog tying in reserve as a last resort."
Their lives and job being what they were, it wasn't long before they were heading out on another mission. Through mutual agreement they decided not to do their bionic intervention, as Doc had taken to calling it, until the mission was completed and they were on their way back to Earth. Their work was dangerous enough without adding in possible emotional turmoil if it could wait.
Goose watched Zachary the whole time, knowing the others were doing the same. When they started out Zachary was hesitating before using his bionic arm, but he was using it. As the mission went on and things blew up as they so often did, the hesitation steadily diminished. The crazier and hairier things got the less Zachary hesitated, culminating in him tapping his thunderbolt during the final confrontation without seeming to think twice about it.
They had just entered hyperspace on their way back home when Niko gave them the nod. Goose agreed it was a good time -- they weren't heading for anything dangerous, but the last mission seemed to still have Zachary comfortable in his own body in a way that he wasn't back on Earth.
It was Niko who initially broached the subject because of the three of them she was the one with the most tact. Doc tended to turn everything into a joke and Goose himself, well he'd never felt like he was good at talking about these sort of touchy things. It was one of the reasons why he preferred actions to words when he could get away with that.
"We wanted to talk to you, Zachary, if that's all right," Niko opened with, the words gentle and careful.
They still caused Zachary to frown. "What about?" He glanced from her to Doc and Goose. "It looks like it's something serious."
It was Goose who said, "Your arm."
Zachary tensed, his left hand clenching into a fist before he very obviously consciously relaxed it. All his hesitation in his movements that had faded over the length of the mission came rushing back. "It's fine," he said brusquely.
Doc nodded. "We know that, but the problem is we're not convinced that you do."
"We've seen the way you've been holding back from using it," Niko said.
"Not when we're on a mission," Goose put in. "You're fine when we're actively working. It's just when we're back home."
"So we know it's not a hardware problem," Doc said.
Zachary looked at Doc with a raised eyebrow. "You saying my software's defective, Doc?"
"We're just worried about you," Niko said in that heartfelt way she had.
Zachary looked at her steadily for a moment then his gaze flicked to Doc and Goose in turn. Whatever he saw there made him let out a deep sigh, the tension in his shoulders visibly relaxing. "I am okay." He looked down at his hands, opening and closing his bionic one. "I just... am finding myself a little uncomfortable using something that under the right circumstances is a dangerous weapon in certain situations. Like around my kids."
Goose let out a breath of his own. Zachary was willing to talk about it, that was the first hurdle over.
"It's not just a weapon. It's not even mostly a weapon," Doc said. "You can't think of it that way. It's your arm."
"Until something goes haywire or something overrides its programming again and then my arm is getting people dead," Zachary argued. "It's hard to stop thinking about it that way after what happened. I'm not even sure if I should."
This Goose understood. "You're right," Goose said, causing both Niko and Doc to turn and stare at him. "Your arm is a weapon. Which makes you a weapon. And there's no absolute guarantee that you won't be compromised again."
"Just where are you going with this my Gooseman?" Doc asked, sotto voiced, twitching his eyebrows at him in a non-verbal attempt at added communication, which Goose translated as are you crazy?
Goose ignored him and continued. "You're not the only one that can be said about, Zachary. I'm a super trooper, I was bred to be a weapon. Hell, most of my kind are in cryo because they're considered weapons instead of people. If my bio defences or I get compromised I'd be just as dangerous as you. Maybe more. You think maybe I should stay away from your kids just in case?"
"Of course not," Zachary said, frowning. Goose figured he saw where this was going. He wasn't a stupid man after all.
Doc made a fake coughing noise that sounded a lot like the words, "Not helping."
Goose continued to ignore him with the ease of long practice. "I won't ask the obvious followup question," Goose told him with a hint of a smirk. "But maybe you should ask it yourself. Look, I get it, we all do. It's not just you. All of us, what we are, what we can do, we all could be considered weapons. That's part of what makes us good at our jobs. But in the right – or wrong – circumstances any of us could be dangerous.
"But I know if that happened to me, the three of you would have my back. You not only would do whatever you had to to keep me from hurting anyone, but you'd do all you could to fix whatever went wrong with me. Hell, when my implant did go on the fritz, that's exactly what you did do." He leaned forward and caught and held Zachary's gaze. "You honestly think we'd do any less for you?"
"Of course not," Zachary said again. "You're the ones who stopped my arm when it did go crazy. I think that's one of the reasons why I don't get as twitchy about it when we're on a mission. If it happened again, I know you'd stop it. Stop me."
"I think the phrase you're looking for is 'save you' not 'stop you' but other than that you're right," Doc told him.
"So if all you need to feel more at ease is to have us around, the answer is obvious, if you'd let it be," Niko said gently. "We can be there when Zach Jr and Jess come to visit."
Zachary was shaking his head even before she finished talking. "I can't ask you to-"
"You're not asking, we're offering," Niko interrupted. "The same way that you would if the positions were reversed.
"And you know we're not going to let up until you give in, so do us all a favor and accept our generous offer right now," Doc added, arms crossed over his chest as he did his best to look stern. It wasn't a very successful, but still the effort had been made.
"But-" Zachary tried again, his gaze bouncing between the three of them.
"No," Doc shook his head. "No buts. Your line is, 'Thank you, I accept.' Preferably with a smile but we won't harp on that."
"Fine," Zachary said, with a sigh. "You win."
"Also acceptable," Doc decided.
"Thank you," Niko said simply.
"No, Doc's right," Zachary replied, losing some of his put upon air. "It's not that I don't appreciate the offer or the concern, it's just-"
"It's a lot easier to pretend there's nothing wrong if we don't talk about it," Goose finished for him. "I get it."
Doc nodded. "We won't talk about it any more. We'll just... happen to be around when Zac Jr and Jessica visit. You won't even know- wait, that's a lie. You'll totally know we're there. But there's nothing too unusual about that. We're friends, right? Friends hang out together."
"It'll be fun," Niko said with a small smile.
The look Zachary gave them all made it clear he didn't share that same opinion. Goose wasn't sure that fun would be the right word either, but hoped this would least prove effective at getting Zachary over his bionic arm reluctance.
Surprisingly enough though Niko proved to be right.
Goose had suggested an outing with Icarus and Winter, which turned out to be a good idea all around. The dolphins got to get out of the lab for a while, Zac Jr and Jess got a day of swimming with the dolphins at the beach, and everyone unwound enough to have a good time, even Zachary.
He'd been visibly careful with using his bionic arm when the day started, but Goose noticed that every time Zachary had hesitated in using it, he'd pause and his gaze would deliberately seek out one of his teammates, after which he'd deliberately do what he'd been holding himself back from. A little stiffly and awkwardly at first, granted, but Niko and Doc were good at distracting the kids so they didn't notice. It seemed to get easier for Zachary as the day wore on and nothing bad happened.
By the end of the day the pauses before he did anything had virtually disappeared. Goose mentally declared the whole thing a success when the last time they'd all headed out for one final swim before heading back, Zachary had even allowed himself to be talked into utilizing a little of the added strength of his bionics to throw both his kids into the water, much to their squealing amusement.
"Thank you," Zachary said quietly, once the dolphins had been returned and the kids had headed off to bed, and it was just the four of them. "For calling me on my shit and for helping me deal with it. Today was... pretty much exactly what I needed."
"Any time, Captain," Goose replied, feeling a warm curl of satisfaction deep in his chest at that. This, looking out for each other and genuinely caring and wanting to help was something that he'd never had with the super trooper program. This was what really being part of a team was like. More than that, part of a family.
"That's what friends are for after all," Doc chimed in. "When you need a helping hand we'll always be within arm's reach."
Goose snorted, but Niko crossed her arms over her chest and warned,"Keep that up Doc and we might need to have give you an intervention for excessive punning next."
"Will there be dolphins involved in this theoretical intervention?" Doc asked.
"Probably not, but I could throw you into the ocean a few times if you think it'd help," Zachary offered, deliberately flexing his bionic arm.
That was when Goose was sure things were going to be okay.