Kirk resisted wiping his hand on his dusty uniform to get the damp out from between his palm and his phaser. His every move was being scrutinized by sidelong glances. Two months into this mission and at moments like this it still felt like two days. He didn't know his crew and they didn't know him, but their lives hung on his every action.

Spock stepped closer, head bent over his tricorder. The device's strap flapped in the breeze. Kirk was slowly learning to rely on his replacement first officer. He had relied on Mitchell's presence too much and didn't want to make the same mistake. The Vulcan seemed like a rock through to the core, not just on the surface. Kirk wasn't used to that and needed to figure out how Spock fit into his leadership model.

Kirk turned back to the too quiet city. Someone had armed the natives of V Pegasi 9. Starfleet wanted to blame the Klingons, although the planet should not have been of interest to them. But having weapons hadn't made the natives into soldiers so they should be easy enough to detain. In theory.

Kirk gestured over his head for the security detail to move forward. The orders were to clear this city of all non native weapons and submit what they found as evidence to the Federation.

"Perhaps we should use something to subdue them all?" one of the security detail said. "Then just walk in."

"Crewman, Prime Directive is still in play." Kirk decided to disregard that the man hadn't used any rank to address him, had perhaps been addressing everyone by thinking aloud. "We're not showing them any more than they already have access to now."

Spock said, "Mass hallucination often causes more cultural disruption through explanation by magic."

McCoy said. "How can it? And how can something that knocks everyone unconscious not be less impactful than marching in, guns drawn?"

Kirk replied, "It takes a change in status at HQ to make it so. Stay back, Bones. In camp, preferably. You're new at this and I don't think you realize the potential danger."

"Oh, I know it all right." Gripping his kit, he added, "Keep an eye on him, Spock."

Spock raised his head in apparent confusion.

"Ach," McCoy said. "Unfeeling Hobgoblin."

Kirk sent the redshirt Goddard to scout ahead.

"I hope you don't take that personally," Kirk said to Spock.

Spock didn't look up this time. "I am incapable of taking anything personally, Captain." He said this like he meant it and Kirk began to understand McCoy's growing habit of ribbing the Vulcan until he reacted. Kirk respected the Vulcan and McCoy's lack of respect irked him, both personally and professionally. But Spock's bald statement gave him an understanding of McCoy's motivation.

Spock wasn't Mitchell and Kirk didn't expect him to be. As the weeks passed since the incidents sparked by crossing the galaxy barrier, Kirk found himself grateful Spock was Mitchell's opposite. Except that it left Kirk truly alone in his command, a position he had not foreseen.

If Spock were capable of understanding human interaction he'd have given in after so many years of exposure. Either he was stubborn beyond anything Kirk could imagine or he truly was incapable. The latter was hard to accept of someone so otherwise brilliant. The ship had a central computer, and it had Spock. He was a dream command asset, just not a personal one. That Spock bristled at McCoy's taunts gave Kirk hope, even as he found himself repeatedly forcing McCoy to back down even in the short month the doctor had been aboard.

Spock had the same right the rest of them did to conduct his life as he chose. Kirk felt an unexpected wave of protective affection for the man standing beside him, intent up on his tricorder.

"Anything?" Kirk said, mostly just to say something.

"Goddard appears to be returning."

"Good." Kirk raised his phaser and pointed it at the sky.

Goddard caught his breath. "There is something large and metal and out of place just two hundred meters ahead, sir."

"Where are the armed natives relative to that?"

Spock replied, "They are scattered among the upper stories of the buildings along with the weapons, Captain. They are not making it easy, despite their lack of experience with urban defense."

"We're going to end up in a phaser fight whether we want one or not. Ours on stun . . . theirs possibly on kill." Kirk had spoken this aloud, but he really needed to convince himself that this was the only way. At least it appeared from the scans that there were very few noncombatants left in the city. Or perhaps that was a sign that the natives were spoiling for a real fight.

Kirk waved to signal again and, ducking, they all ran forward, through alien brush, past small outbuildings to a large interstellar transport container. It had been bent on impact, apparently dropped from some height. It was empty. If they could find enough evidence here, they might not have to go farther.

"Anything?" Kirk asked Spock, who was scanning the warped metal, tricorder in one hand, phaser in the other.

"It shows residue from no fewer than 3 other planets. Possible biological contamination by formerly being used to ship foodstuff-"

Kirk cut him off. "Anything we can use?"

"No, sir."

Kirk wanted to punch the container. He settled for clutching his left hand into a fist. His instincts were screaming at him that the situation was not as it seemed, but he had no evidence of that with which to direct two security details, let alone a logic- and fact-driven first officer.

Kirk wanted to say aloud, "I think these orders are a bad idea and we should wait for authorization for a mass sedation to do this." But that would be expressing doubt and he would not second guess himself once he'd launched a mission he'd been directly ordered to conduct. He had hated that in his superiors as a lieutenant. All eyes were on him. And right now he wasn't being the commander he wanted to be.

Kirk's communicator chirped.

Uhura's voice came over the com, "Captain, the USS Potemkin is approaching the V Pegasi system."

"They are?" Kirk blurted, but recovered himself. "I won't ask now why we weren't informed. We'll take all the help we can get." These words sounded good coming out, but he wondered if Starfleet doubted him and thought he needed backup from someone with 9 years in the captain's seat.

Spock began circling the container, tricorder whirling. Kirk stayed with him, phaser raised. He needed to bring his thoughts back to the present.

Nothing moved in the buildings around them except some washing left on on a line and silvery streamers that flew from the corners of the stone buildings, perhaps to keep some unwanted animal away. He felt like an performer with a bored audience waiting for the next act to begin.

Kirk opened his communicator. "Lieutenant, verify with Captain Okudo that this planet doesn't have a change in status vis a vis the Prime Directive. He's presumably talked to 'Fleet more recently than we have."

Spock and he had circled the container all the way around to where it formed a barrier to the city. Upon Uhura's acknowledgement, Kirk flipped the communicator closed and with subconscious skill, flipped it down to his belt with his left hand. Something caught his eye in the distance. A structure, like a silo, sat far from the outskirts of town and the other multistory buildings. A red beam of light flashed on the brushed metal beside them, lighting Spock's uniform, making the closed area of his arms around his tricorder glow for an instant as though he cradled a live coal.

Kirk twisted, threw his back into his first officer and fired in the direction of the silo. Yellow and white filled the right side of Kirk's vision along with a searing pain through his brain and chest.

For long-stretched moments there was nothing. He hadn't fallen. His back was ramrod taut and his knees were gelatinous. He was sinking and he could hear his own breath harsh and loud. In and out. Then nothing. He had to force himself to draw in another shallow breath as he sank.

Something was holding him up.

Sound returned in a roar. Phasers were firing. Shouted commands. He wanted to add his, but he couldn't speak. The world tilted and there was pain beyond anything Kirk had ever imagined.

"Captain." This was Spock's voice. Calm even with all the firing. Calm but not empty.

"Withdraw," Kirk said. It didn't come out commandingly. His voice was raw breath. "They are shielding, cloaking-" That's what it is. He understood, fleetingly, through the agony, what had been bothering him, small discrepancies between scans and the view from the ground, then the thoughts were lost.

A new voice. Younger. Very firm. Not to be denied. "We're covering, Commander. Go."

Movement. Jarring movement. And pain. And something bearing him along with inhuman strength. Robot strength. Kirk drew in another unwilling breath and let himself be grateful for that strength.

"Keep breathing, Captain."

Kirk forced himself to and didn't feel more pain from it as expected. The voice was so close. Spock was carrying him. The movement might kill him before forgetting to breathe did.

Kirk was put down, a little hard, a little panicked. The pain faded so fast Kirk raised his head, but it was impossible to hold it up, and it hit the ground hard.

"Jim? Stay with us. Talk to me." McCoy. So warm, that voice.

"The scans," Kirk tried to say. It was hopeless that he could be understood. He cracked his eyes open. The purple-hued blue of the sky contrasted with the uniforms of his First and Medical Officers.

"I'm putting you on full life support," McCoy said. A hexagonally edged collar came down over Kirk's neck. He quivered in animal distress as it clamped on. Hands gripped his arms, one on each side. Pain flooded in again, but not as bad as before. It tasted metallic, and hollow, and he couldn't pin down what part of his body was causing it even as it threatened to consume his heart.

Panic.

"Hold still, Jim." McCoy, so matter of fact.

The collar whirled, pricked, whirled and Kirk's head cleared, his vision tunneled out. McCoy popped vials onto his hypo and administered them. Kirk couldn't feel it. But he could feel a hold on his other arm. Spock. His touch-telepathic officer who touched no one had an iron grip on him.

"Can you carry him the rest of the way to camp?"

"Affirmative."

Kirk was lifted and pain spiked heat behind his eyeballs and made him exhale forcefully. Then he had difficulty drawing another breath. But the collar was oxygenating him, so it did not matter. He gave into it and with that loss of will to breathe, his limbs went limp.

"Captain?" Spock's voice was not calm, and Kirk jerked his head from a wave of pain that twisted his heart around backwards.

Kirk said, "I'm here." Breathy. Not commanding. Doesn't matter.

This ride was smoother than the last, but the pain was higher. They stepped through a crowd of peering eyes, redshirts, worried, and into a camp shelter formed by equipment boxes and a tent.

"Put him here."

Kirk was lowered gently this time. His limbs arranged. A blanket tucked around him. The pain faded to bad but tolerable. He ached everywhere with tiny pulsing throbs flickering through his limbs.

Kirk blinked his eyes open. Spock was standing beside the stretcher, hands on his tricorder, but not using it.

Kirk couldn't understand where the pain had gone. Perhaps a coincidence of the medication from the collar. The tent moved in a way that made him rock as though in a boat. So drained. He could sink and drown and not care. He wanted to tilt his head to the side to rest, maybe sleep, but the needles from the collar into his neck pulled uncomfortably on his fragile insides when he did so. "Bones."

"Right here, Jim. We're going to get you fixed up. Just hang in there."

Kirk felt his eyebrows lowering in confusion at an optimistic Leonard McCoy. He shifted his eyes to look at Spock, who was using his tricorder now, to scan Kirk, which required a lot of adjusting of dials. At least he was back to normal.

McCoy chattered as he worked, changing out the vials installed into the collar. "I remember you liked to push your luck. Looks like it ran out already."

Spock said, "He stepped in front of a blast that would have struck me."

"Isn't Spock more expendable than you?"

Despite the needles, Kirk shook his head. "No." He wanted to explain that he hadn't thought ahead to his actions, but couldn't say that much.

"It was a reflected blast, otherwise . . ." Spock uncharacteristically trailed off.

Spock put his tricorder at his side and stood straight. "If I am no longer needed here . . ."

"Go on," McCoy said. "I've done all I can for him planetside. But given the extent of cellular disruption. I don't think a transporter is a good idea. Even with the additional wait to evac."

"Doctor!" Came a shout from outside. "Doctor McCoy!"

McCoy pushed himself to his feet and went out. Spock lingered at the foot of the stretcher. Kirk tossed his chin as best he could to tell him to go on, and he did. He was in the command line now and needed to take over the mission, not hang around here babysitting his captain.

Kirk was left alone in the tent with the bulky collar to keep him company. It whirred and clicked and smelled of the ship. He breathed as deeply as he could just to feel more alive. He floated. He couldn't sense the stretcher under him. He had failed. Somehow. Doing what came by instinct.

But he was alive. And his officers had acted exemplary in the crisis, had shown they had far more depth than Kirk imagined. He smiled faintly in the filtered light coming through the shelter's walls. If he could just stay alive long enough to earn their loyalty, all would be right in the universe.

Except Spock, who had not jumped in to replace him, had instead burdened himself with Kirk's mistake. He wore blue for a reason. It was Kirk who had promoted him to the command line. But he refused to believe that was a mistake. Spock's actions had been logical under a different logic, one Kirk hadn't expected him, of all people, to fall prey to.

At least the pain was a lot lower. That had been the kind of pain that could make a man crazy.

It had been a simple mission. Maybe that had been the first critical mistake, assuming that.

The sound of weapons woke Kirk and the surging memory of the heart aching pain startled him to panicked awareness. His heart thrummed in his ears. But the pain wasn't real, it was only a memory. He didn't feel great, every muscle in his upper body prickled and his bones throbbed, but he didn't feel anywhere near that bad.

The shadows of the storage containers on the tent wall hadn't moved. The distance and intensity of the blasts didn't offer much clue as to who was firing, or had an advantage. He tried to sit up, but the shackle weight of the collar and his overwhelming weakness made it impossible. His belt was empty of communicator and weapon. That was an oversight.

The pain from attempting to sit up gradually faded. Pain nothing like the memory, thankfully, which washed through him again as a memory, making him stop breathing. The collar whirred louder as he held his breath. He studied the glowing tent ceiling as it rose and fell like an animal breathing. Then it fluttered. The stakes hadn't been tightened very well, or some of the stays were missing. Someone needed to be corrected regarding that.

Footsteps approached.

"Captain." It was Spock.

He came beside the stretcher, tricorder running.

"I'm all right," Kirk said. "Report."

"There is little to report. We are in a stalemate with the natives. The Potemkin is sending personnel to assist."

Kirk burned with annoyance at this, but forced it to flow out of him. "Good. Any other casualties?"

"McCoy is tending to some minor injuries at a medical station set up closer to the city. They will be evacuated here if needed, when possible." He sounded so cool and calm. The subject could be the weather.

No command seemed worth the effort of Kirk speaking. When he remained silent, Spock read the tricorder screen, made a small adjustment, studied it some more. The exposure to the tricorder bothered Kirk. Spock was seeing through him.

"I said I'm all right."

Spock let the tricorder hang by his side on the strap. "Do you have any orders, Captain?"

"Be careful."

"Acknowledged."

Kirk strained against the lethargy to think of something relevant to say. The stretcher seemed to sway but it was likely the tent walls moving. "Something's not right with the scans."

"The natives do appear to have been given or sold some stealth or cloaking technology. Undoubtedly how they planned to remain under the protection of the Federation as an unadvanced society while taking advantage of said higher technology."

Kirk nodded. "As long as you know." He swallowed, which wasn't easy with the collar. He wanted to rhetorically ask why it was always weapons undeveloped planets wanted. Why not farm robots or weather machines. But he didn't want to waste his breath.

Spock started to speak, but stopped. It was a first for the Vulcan.

"Thank you for saving my life, Captain."

"You would be here instead of me."

Spock seemed vaguely uncomfortable. He latched his hands behind his back and bent his head forward. "Doctor McCoy believes the systemic disruption of the blast would have been considerably harder on me, despite my overall superior strength. Vulcans rely more heavily on a functioning voluntary nervous system than do humans."

Kirk let the corner of his mouth twitch. "Worth it, in that case." He tossed his head. "Report back when anything changes."

Spock departed with one of those prim nods of the head.

The empty tent fluttered, and Kirk felt buoyant as though the stretcher drifted on water without fear of sinking. The memory of the pain came back this time without touching him, just floated through him like a movie, and with a jolt he realized he'd only felt it when Spock was touching him. Could Spock's touch be actively painful? Was that why he refrained from touching others? He'd never heard that of Vulcans in general, but Spock wasn't like other Vulcans.