The crew of the Enterprise felt their shoulders straighten as they stepped back onto her decks. A month of shore leave had seemed like a reward too good to be true when their captain had cheerfully made his announcement, but the weeks back on Earth had left them all itching to get back to work. For people like them, the black was where they truly belonged.

McCoy had been the first back after spending one week in Georgia, and three more at the bottom of a bottle. Sickbay had undergone a new refit in drydock and the captain had signed off on all McCoy's requests. He had been eager to get back and start complaining that nothing was where he had left it.

"He spoils you." Christine Chapel arrived in Sickbay the morning before her first duty shift. A month in the sunshine had done her a world of good, and the ghostly pallor most starship personnel adopted had deepened into a more healthy glow.

McCoy held up the new state of the art dermaregenerator for inspection and was pleased to note that the chunkiness of the previous model had been addressed. "Hardly. He's in here more than the rest of the crew combined. It was purely self-serving." He set the device down and moved on to coo over the new tricorder Jim had ordered him.

"Right." Chapel rolled her eyes at the childish look on her superior's face. "Because Captain Kirk loves hypos so much he felt the need to order a whole new supply of them."

McCoy flashed her a rare and guilty grin. They both knew the captain would happily ban all hypos from the Enterprise if given half the chance. While he was incredibly generous in seeing his crew properly equipped – and probably bypassing the proper channels to do so – it was downright suspicious for Kirk to arm McCoy with more tools he would eventually be tortured with.

"What did he do?" She asked, suspiciously casting an eye around the room and noting with relief that all the biobeds were empty.

"Nothing, actually. For once." McCoy moved on to the hypos and ran his fingers almost reverently over each one. No doubt he was imagining all the ways he could avenge his ever deteriorating nerves. "In true Jim fashion, he's feeling guilty for something he didn't do."

As apposed to brazenly refusing to acknowledge all the insanely reckless things he did do.

When Chapel pushed for an explanation, she was half surprised McCoy didn't either growl or send her to work on something. He was fiercely protective of his friendship with the captain, but all the new medical toys had clearly put him in an unprecedented good mood. "Normally when we have leave on Earth, he comes to Georgia with me."

"But he didn't this time?"

McCoy shook his head. "No." He didn't offer an explanation, and Chapel didn't push. "I offered to stay on base, but I hadn't seen Jo in eight months."

"And how is she?" Little Joanna McCoy was the light of her daddy's life.

"Growing like a beanpole." McCoy shook his head in amazement. Clearly his medical expertise suffered something of a setback when presented with his own child, and the idea of her growing up seemed to have left him stunned. "Of course I got it in the neck for not bring Uncle Jimmy with me." McCoy rolled his eyes fondly. "I swear he is better with her than I am."

Chapel might have expected to hear resentment in the doctor's voice if he had been speaking of anyone but the captain.

"That is because he lets her dress him up and play tea-party."

And as amusing as the whole idea of the heroic Captain Kirk being dressed by a six year old girl was, Chapel didn't doubt for a second that Jim wouldn't pull it off with the same effortless humor he did everything else. Some men could carry off a dress.

Kirk was not surprisingly one of them.

Doctor McCoy on the other hand…

Chapel had seen the evidence and been met with nothing more than an unembarrassed shrug from Jim. If only enemies of the Federation knew that the quickest way through Kirk's defenses was the hopeful smile of an innocent child.

"Speaking of immature Starfleet officers…" McCoy selected his new tricorder and brandished it like a sword. "I believe it is time to see what kind of trouble Jim's crew managed to get themselves into this time."

"You never know, sir. They might surprise you." Chapel straightened and flashed McCoy one last smile as a civilian.

"Oh I doubt it." McCoy shook his head. "Same ship, different day, remember?"

That, Chapel concluded, was a fair point.

"Stop messing with that!"

Sulu and Chekov had quickly found that a month of rest and relaxation had done nothing to soften the blow that Nyota Uhura could deliver with one delicately arched eyebrow.

After drunkenly agreeing to follow Chekov back to his native Russia while on leave, Sulu found that he could only remember a handful of days, while the rest were all one vodka induced blur. Whatever trouble they had managed to find had only served to leave Chekov eyeing him with awe, and no small amount of amusement. Sulu had also landed himself with a spectacular rug burn all down one cheek, and it was to that Uhura felt the need to scold him.

"It itches." He frowned. "What happened again?"

Chekov grinned down at his station and didn't answer. While he wasn't old enough to drink while in the States, back in Russia, he proved that he was more than capable of holding his own in a drinking tournament, and could probably give McCoy a run for his money. Sneaky Russian wiz kids.

Seeking to find a less embarrassing subject, Sulu turned to Spock who was seated at his own station. "Did you have an enjoyable leave, Commander?"

"Most pleasant, thank you Mr Sulu." Spock inclined his head. He looked exactly the same as he had before they had all stepped off the Enterprise. "Perhaps you might seek medical attention for your injury?"

The bridge door opened at that minute, and Doctor McCoy marched in. "I knew it." He said, eyes narrowing on Sulu with inhuman perceptiveness. "What did you do this time?"

The tricorder was out and beeping before Sulu could so much as protest, let alone think of an excuse.

"We'll you'll live." McCoy continued moments later when the tricorder reported only surface abrasions. "Come down to sickbay after your shift and I'll give you a shot against any infection."

Sulu thought about protesting but quickly decided against it. He had witnessed enough encounters between their CMO and the captain to know that some battles were beyond his capabilities to partake in.

Speaking of…

"Where is he hiding then?" McCoy asked, looking around the bridge for the captain. "You're only going to make this worse for yourself, Jim."

It was clear Kirk wasn't on the bridge, but knowing the captain was not above hiding behind his chair when McCoy was after him, it made sense that the doctor would check.

"Captain Kirk has yet to report for duty." Spock informed them, his eyebrows pulled together in consternation. "I had considered asking you if you were aware of his whereabouts, but clearly you are as ill-informed as the rest of us."

"If that means that I don't have a clue where the hell he is, then sure. I'm 'ill-informed'." McCoy rolled his eyes. "No one has seen him?"

That moment, the door to the bridge slid open, and they all waited in expectation for Kirk's enthusiastic smile and infectious cheer. Instead Spock stood smoothly. "Admiral on the Bridge."

Sulu spun around in his chair at breakneck speed, though not as fast as Chekov, who very nearly managed to fall out of his all together.

Spock, who stood beside the Captain's Chair, moved around it in order to greet Admiral Pike. Sulu allowed himself to breathe again. Of all the Admirals, Pike was the most well-known and well-loved entity. As his former captain, Sulu had been willing to die for him, and nothing had changed in the last year.

"Admiral Pike." Spock inclined his head in greeting. "This is a pleasant occurrence. Forgive me however, but the captain is not yet aboard to greet you."

"Commander." Pike returned the acknowledgement, but the niceties ended there.

Chekov shot Sulu a look that was as much concerned as it was curious, and Sulu knew he wasn't alone in picking up on the tension that suddenly settled on the room.

Pike moved to the center of the Bridge and eyed each of them carefully. "I am fully aware that Kirk is not with us, however we do not have the time to spare. At twenty three hundred hours last night, Federation vessel The Maria sent out a distress signal while en route to Station 14. When Starfleet arrived to provide aid, we found no trace of The Maria and attempts to locate her have so far failed. At eleven hundred hours today, we received word from an unknown enemy that The Maria and her crew are being held to ransom."

"Has there been an attempt to open negotiations?" Spock asked. Sulu was already calculating the distance it would take to reach to Station 14, and more importantly, how far the enemy could have travelled from it in twelve hours. There were just too many variables.

"That is where things start to get tricky." Pike admitted. "While we have yet to identify those responsible, they seem to know a great deal about us. They demanded Starfleet send Captain Kirk as their representative."

A collective flinch ran through the command crew.

The only one who seemed unaffected by the news was Spock, and Sulu knew just how much that placid Vulcan façade could mask. "There is a reason then that you are briefing us before the captain's arrival."

It wasn't a question. There was something more going on here than Pike seemed to want to admit.

With the eyes of the entire bridge crew on him, Pike didn't so much as blink in discomfort. He leveled Spock with a stern, unflinching gaze.

"We have reason to believe Kirk was aboard The Maria."

Well shit.

"Why?" The question was without social graces or etiquette, so it could only have come from Doctor McCoy.

Pike turned to look at him. "That information is classified."

"Classified my ass, sir!" McCoy bristled then quickly deflated, resignation hot on the heels of anger. "Do they know he is on board?"

"We don't even know for certain." Pike explained calmly.

"But you're pretty sure."

"You're almost as bad as he is." The seriousness of Pike's expression broke to something more amused for a brief second. "Yes. We are fairly convinced. So far we can only assume that the enemy is unaware of this information."

Something which would not last long when faced with the captain's inability to avoid irritating those who wanted his blood, and the sense of responsibility he would have for the others on The Maria.

Pike seemed to be on the same page. "Time is of the essence. While some of the Admiralty favored sending another vessel to secure the rescue of The Maria, the majority of us believe that continuing the rouse of cooperation for as long as possible might give Kirk the time he needs on the inside. And when that happens, you know him better than anyone else."

"I do not believe anyone is capable to truly predicting Captain Kirk's actions, Admiral, which is what makes him so effective. However I concede that if any are able to do so, they are aboard this vessel."

Spock's faith in them all was buoying, but unneeded. Sulu had already turned to his station and began plotting a course for Station 14. Beside him, Chekov was scrolling through streams of data, trying to find any hint of where The Maria might be being held. Uhura was plugged into the transmitter and McCoy was stabbing at his tricorder viciously.

The incomplete incident logs for the last twelve hours fed through into the computer, and Sulu adjusted his navigation to work with the data.

"Mr Sulu." Spock stepped up and gave the orders.

"Good luck ladies and gentleman." Pike said before stepping off the bridge.

Jim Kirk loved his crew and protected them with every inch of his being. That dedication was returned one hundred fold.

The Enterprise was coming for her captain.