As the giant wolfship neared the Araluan harbour, Halt found himself unconsciously backing away from the open, going to stand beside the mast. He fought off the temptation to pull up his hood, but used instead Erak's considerable bulk to shield himself. He sighed heavily as he watched Will, Horace and Evanlyn- Cassandra- wave to the cheering crowds.
"There's a first." Erak grinned, the new Oberjarl delighted with this turn of events. It wasn't often the Araluans greeted a raiding ship with open arms- or defences. Halt found the will to smile, but he was sure it looked forced. And it very well was.
"And there's another. That's the King himself." he said, pointing discreetly.
As they drew nearer, the form of the King moved towards the docks at a lively speed, running to see his daughter. Suddenly, out of the ranks of people behind him, a smaller figure darted in front of the ruler and made a straight run for the wolfship. Duncan didn't seem to care at this break of protocol.
Halt felt the tears burning as he recognised that small figure racing along the beach. Her voice, usually soft and comforting, was high and terrified as she couldn't see him. The tears threatened, and very carefully Halt bent to check his shoes, wiping his eyes as he did. Erak noticed the movement, but didn't say anything.
The Wolfwind bumped the shore, and before anyone had the chance to disembark, that small figure Halt had been avoiding vaulted up onto the deck and barrelled headlong into him, sending them both sprawling. She didn't seem to care, as she ran her hands through his hair and kissed every part of him she could reach. That included his lips, on more than one occasion.
"Eleven months, you bastard." she murmured, not really meaning it. Halt didn't seem to care that her lips were still on his.
"Bastard?" he questioned, smiling despite himself. He attempted to pull her closer, but she moved away to stand, helping him up with her.
"Oh, Halt." she whispered suddenly, overcome with joy at seeing him alive.
"When we got word that the Temujai were invading- God, Halt, I wanted to die!" she gushed, almost inaudibly. He smiled at her dryly.
"I very nearly did, Imogen." that remark earned him a tap on the cheek and a sharp glare, one which instantly softened.
"Don't. Please, don't." she begged, not feeling the strength of heart to continue. Suddenly, the King's voice interrupted their reunion.
"Halt! Come ashore, my friend." he called, his arm around his daughter. Halt noticed Will with Arald and Horace with Rodney, beckoning him also. As small as he was, he found himself shrinking back into his cloak. He didn't notice Imogen's hand slip into his, nor hear the comforting words as she lead her best friend, her mentor and saviour, her secret flame, out of the shadows and into full view of those waiting.
"My Lord…" Halt began nervously, sounding quite uncharacteristic. Imogen stopped with him, seeming determined not to let him out of her sight.
"I have still three weeks to serve on my banishment." he finished, causing a small twitch of Imogen's hand. He looked at her in concern, but her face was completely calm. Duncan turned to Lord Anthony, and conversed for several moments.
"Go ashore, Imma. There's no need you waiting to say goodbye again." he muttered to her. She squeezed his hand comfortingly.
"Not on your life." she responded, the shadow of a smile on her lips. Halt couldn't help but wish Duncan would get on with it.
"Well, it seems we have found a loophole. Ranger Halt, you are hereby pardoned on the grounds of your heroic actions in bringing my daughter home safely!" Duncan called, and Halt felt his knees buckle slightly. Imma's hand steadied him, and she lead him down the ramp.
As soon as his feet touched Araluan soil, tears sprang unbidden to his eyes and stayed there. Imma, ever the one with the last say, caught something thrown to her from Crowley, and handed it to Halt.
"You're going to need this." she said, pressing the silver oak leaf into his palm. The tears he'd controlled so well now spilled down his cheeks, unable to express his gratitude. Imma shook her head slightly and brought her lips to meet his briefly.
"Thank you." he whispered, embracing her. The festivities can be damned, he thought. And to hell with politics, with war, and to hell with crowds. he added quite fiercely. I'm going home.
As if reading his thoughts, Imma stayed with him as they left the crowds and even Will to their celebrations. They had their own to see to.
"Halt?" Imma asked, once they were clear. He hummed in reply, his arm around her shoulders.
"I missed you. Don't ever leave me like that again, will you?" she said finally, the arm around his waist squeezing him slightly. Halt wasn't surprised, but he took the opportunity to demonstrate that her feelings for him were returned wholeheartedly.