"Remind me," Ryan said, casually propped against the bar, "why I agreed to come?"
Lyle laughed. "Because if you didn't Claudia would have handed you your balls on a plate, mate. What I still can't believe is that she talked Lester into it. I swear she's got something on him, but he's not giving it up. Not sure how she convinced Cutter, for that matter."
"Cutter's on his best behaviour after that stunt he pulled last month that nearly got his scrawny neck broken, again... He'd probably sing karaoke naked if she asked him to right now," Ryan said. "Who they think they're kidding, I don't know."
"Well, that was a perfectly wretched image to put in my head, thank you, Captain," Lester said, suddenly appearing behind him.
Only many years of combat training kept Ryan from jumping like a startled pig. "I live to serve, sir," he responded coolly.
Lester chuckled. "Yes, well if you're both quite done disseminating images best left out of the public psyche... have either of you by any chance seen Mr. Hart?"
Ryan sighed. "No sir, he isn't coming."
Lester's eyebrow quirked up. "Really? I was led to believe attendance was compulsory for anyone who didn't want Miss. Brown to be most furious with them."
"I thought it was anyone who didn't want Claudia to cut their balls off and hand them back on a plate..." Lyle said with a little grin.
"Also true," Lester said.
"He said he'd only spoil it for everyone else, what with..."
With things left best unsaid, Ryan thought, but it was too late to put that genie back in the bottle. There wasn't a person in the ARC who didn't know Stephen's personal history thanks to Cutter's bitch of an ex-wife.
"I see," Lester said.
Ryan sighed. "I tried to convince him, but he was going to stay at the ARC and work late, in case anything came up. Beta team are on duty , so unless it's an emergency no one here will need to be called out."
"Well, if you should find yourself phoning him and telling him to get his arse down here, I'm sure Miss. Brown would appreciate his attendance, you can make it an order from me if you wish," Lester said. "Cutter might have his head up his arse, but most of us realise that youthful indiscretions are... best forgotten and long since paid for."
"Too fucking right," Lyle agreed.
Ryan excused himself to go outside and 'get some air', leaving Lester and Lyle to talk about... well, whatever it was they talked about, Ryan had never been honestly sure.
It still boggled him a bit that Lyle would go for someone like Lester, but he'd known the lieutenant long enough to know his feelings for Lester were serious and Ryan could be happy for him about that. God knows Lyle was due something serious after the string of broken hearts left on the other side of the fence.
He plucked his phone from the pocket of his jacket, hitting Stephen's speed dial as he moved off to find a quiet corner around the side of the old cricket club, waving a brief hand in acknowledgement of a couple of the ARC's support staff – no one had been exempt from Claudia's holiday spirit, although he had to admit, she'd done a good job, considering the last minute hiring of the hall.
"Hey, bored already?" Stephen's amused voice asked when he answered.
"Only because I'm still too sober," Ryan said. "Lester wants you to get your arse down here."
"That's what I said. Lester. You know, your boss. Although a smart man would have taken Claudia's threat about his balls seriously, that woman can be scary when she wants to be."
Stephen snorted. "Ryan, I told you, I'm not..."
"You're being pig-headed," Ryan said. "Come on, Hart, it's a party, you don't even have to talk to Cutter, hell, three quarters of the ARC staff are here and their families. No one else cares about..."
"Nick cares..." Stephen said sharply, following it a moment later with a soft sigh. "I'm sorry... see, this is why I didn't want to come. I can't, okay. It's hard enough at work. Cutter barely looks at me half the time and it isn't just him. Abby, Connor... I know Connor at least doesn't mean to be... but Cutter's his mentor and he can't help... and Claudia very probably won't miss me. She'll probably be relieved."
"Stephen..." Ryan started to argue, then he had to drag the phone away from his ear or risk going deaf as the anomaly detector went off somewhere in the background.
"I have to go..." Stephen said quickly. "I'll keep you posted."
Ryan sighed, already turning to head back towards the front door and let Lester and the others know that the detector had gone off when he turned the corner and stopped dead in his tracks.
"Fuck," he muttered.
What were the bloody chances?
Hanging there, not ten feet in front of him, sparkling brightly in the dark of the night, was an anomaly.
When Stephen arrived on site, things were in a state of controlled chaos.
Claudia had fabricated lies to clear out all non-essential personnel and their families and was busily making apologies and promises to arrange something else after the new year, while practically pushing them towards their various vehicles and the minibuses she'd arranged for people who wanted to drink.
A lot of strange looks came their way and Claudia glared, as they headed towards the building, but there was really no subtle way to arrive with five SAS men and a dozen equipment boxes in tow. Stephen shot her an apologetic look and headed for where Lester was standing near the corner of the building.
"It's around there, nothing has come through," Lester reported, keeping his voice low so as not to be overheard by the leaving party-goers.
There were going to be more than a few cranky personnel, Stephen thought, complaining tomorrow after they'd got it in the ear from their various partners and children, but it wasn't like they could predict when an anomaly would pop up. Although he was seriously going to start wondering if maybe Lester was cursed given the frequency with which they popped up when he was around.
Stephen kept that thought to himself as he followed Stringer and his lads around the side of the building. The anomaly sparkled brightly, hovering just off the ground near the back edge of the club.
Ryan and his lads were already accepting weapons from Stringer’s team, the tac vests looking strange over their finest glad-rags.
He wondered if Claudia was now regretting her insistence that everyone dress up. Tuxedo's were not prime dinosaur-chasing wear and since Stephen knew she'd hired several of them – on government money no less – she wouldn't be thrilled if they were damaged.
It was almost certain she was regretting her own choice of attire. The green floor length, skin-tight dress looked stunning when he'd passed her, but it was certainly not practical for dealing with an anomaly, especially not with the ankle-breaking heels she was also wearing.
"I know you wanted me down here," Stephen said, when he made it past the other assorted soldiers, to where his lover was standing. "But this is overkill."
Ryan chuckled. "No such thing, sweetie."
Ryan considered it no small amount of good fortune that they'd got rid of all non-essentials in under forty minutes, especially when only forty-five minutes after the anomaly first appeared an inhuman sound echoed only seconds before something came flying through the sparkling doorway from its own time, to theirs.
Several of the soldiers sensibly jumped out of the way and it was just as well, Ryan thought, because soon another and then another of the creatures followed, until eight of them were lumbering across the grounds of the cricket field at a fair pace.
Someone hit the lights, lighting up the whole area and mercifully startling the beasts into stillness – dumb luck, Ryan thought, as it could easily have gone the other way and eight of these fuckers running down the residential streets just beyond the cricket clubs borders would be difficult to hide.
"What are they?" Stringer asked in his typical cut-glass tone.
"Aeolosaurus, but they're juveniles," Connor answered after a few moments of tapping away at his database.
"That's a juvenile?" Lyle said.
"Aeolosaurus are herbivores from the late Cretaceous, the adult specimens found are larger, around 50 feet and estimated to weight maybe as much as 15 tons..."
"Maybe it's not the Aeo... whatever then," Kermit suggested.
"No, it is, the forward pointing spines on the tail are a dead give away, scientists think they might be able to rear up on their hind legs... and that ones nearly full grown, it's got to be at least 40 feet..."
Ryan had to agree. From the end of its long neck, to its equally long tail, it did seem to be the biggest of the creatures.
"Well on the plus side it isn't going to try to eat any of us," Ryan said. "But how the hell do we get rid of them...? I doubt simply asking them to go home will work."
Especially given that several of the creatures were already slowly starting to move towards and munch on some of the trees and bushes around the pitches. It was very unlikely they could be enticed away, until they'd had their fill.
After an hour of waiting around in the frosty evening for something to happen, Stephen's whole body felt a little numb.
The creatures were perfectly content to keep nibbling and so far every suggestion for moving them had been met with a list of reasons as to why it was a very, very bad idea.
Stephen agreed most of the ideas were fraught with one sort of danger or another, but sooner or later, they were going to have to move them before the anomaly decided to close and then they'd really have a problem.
No way were eight of these things going to fit in the ARC menagerie. Not even at the size they were now, never mind when they'd finished growing.
"Maybe we can just..." Connor started to say, but then stopped. "No, never mind."
"I don't suppose anyone brought any salad?" Lyle commented.
Lester raised an eyebrow at his lover.
"Well, they're veggies, right, and I don't know when the last time you ate a conifer was, but a nice Caesar salad has got to be more appetising," Lyle said with a grin.
Several titters of laughter filled the air for a few moments after Lyle's statement. Trust him to come up with something like that, Stephen thought ruefully. It was almost a surprise when after a few moments thought, Cutter put his two penny's worth in and finally agreed with something.
"Actually... it's not a bad plan."
"Excuse me?" Lester said.
"They're not different from any other living thing in that respect I'd suppose... if something easier to get at, or tastier, comes along, they might just go for it."
"There are salad bowls inside," Connor piped up helpfully.
"Not sure two bowls of partly wilted lettuce and tomatoes are gonna do it," Ryan said.
"There is a Tesco not far from here," Stephen said. "It's 24 hour."
Cutter shot him a guarded look, but he finally nodded. "We'll need everything you can get that’s remotely vegetable-like. Anything leafy and green first.I It'll be what they're use to seeing, but don't leave out things like tomatoes and carrots, the sweeter smell might attract them. If it's got a flower sections, bring some of them too."
Lester sighed. "This is going to cost a fortune."
There were few more incongruous sights than a team of soldiers – even if they were currently in tuxedos, or maybe because of that – and three civilians, including two women in gowns wandering around Tesco buying every bit of veg they could get their hands on.
The floor manager was aghast, but Claudia flashed him her ID and with her best 'Claudia Brown, Home Office' face in place, dragged him away to let them do their worst.
Fourteen trolley loads later and they'd left very little on the shelves.
The few late night shoppers were looking at them with a combination of intrigue and horror, but none of them approached to find out why exactly there were eight people ridding the shop of everything green – edible or otherwise – they could find. Lyle especially had looked just a little too smug when he tossed a basket full of mistletoe into the mix.
It was just as well that Claudia had decided the party should be a week before Christmas – largely, Ryan thought because that's when she could book a room that late in the year – because if they'd done this Christmas Eve as she'd originally wanted, they'd have had real bother getting anything with which to entice their wayward herbivores.
"Do we really think this will work?" Ryan asked Stephen.
"Well... it might," Stephen said. "It won't hurt at any rate... well maybe the Home Office budget..."
The Home Office budget was going to be deeply hurt, Ryan agreed as the teller rung up their trolleys. Ryan stopped looking when it hit £500. Cutter had better hope this plan worked or Lester was going to kill him.
"On the plus side," Connor offered when Lester saw the final receipt, on their return to the cricket club, "if it doesn't work, we've got all the veg for Christmas dinner here..."
"We've got Christmas dinner for every person in the ARC three times over including the creatures," Lester said.
"Rex likes sprouts," Connor said.
Lester threw a practised glare at the young man and Stephen suppressed a smile when it rolled right off Connor's back the way it always did.
It wasn't, Stephen thought, that Connor didn't think Lester was capable of slapping him silly some day, it was more likely, Connor just knew that Lester – even if he would never admit it – honestly cared for all of them and would probably let them off with anything short of murder.
In fact, in some cases, Stephen wasn't sure they couldn't get away with that too.
"All right, we need to set up a trail of food leading to the anomaly.... and toss some through, too. Hopefully the scent will draw them. If we can get one moving the others might follow."
"We should check the other side first. The way they stampeded through here, there may be something there that was chasing them," Stringer said.
"Nothing else has come through. If it was that intent on them it would have followed..." Cutter said, but gave a conciliatory nod. "It's still probably a good idea to check. If we send them back and they're spooked again they could stamped backwards and right out of the grounds, the lights won't startle them like that a second time."
"Stringer, take Cutter through, make sure there is nothing waiting to eat these things on the other side... and do try not to get eaten yourself if there is," Lester said.
Stringer gave a curt little nod and waved a couple of his team over to go through with them, while the others all started to empty out the bin bags full of veg they'd bought, tossing plastic wrapping aside haphazardly.
It looked faintly ridiculous Stephen thought, the trail of lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, cauliflower, broccoli, sprouts, carrots, parsnip, turnip, every vegetable Stephen thought he'd ever even heard off – and fruit, apples, pears, oranges, banana, mango, strawberries, everything they had in store – because Claudia had decided it couldn't hurt, maybe Aeolosaurus were very fond of blueberries.
Ryan kept his weapon close while he helped unload all the veg from the cars, not entirely easy with Stringer and Cutter on the other side of the anomaly, but it had made sense to send him instead of Ryan. Even with his tac vest and gun, Ryan was hardly properly dressed for dealing with whatever the past might throw at him.
It was a relief when the four men stepped back through to give the all clear. "It's day light on the other side," Cutter said. "No sign of any predators, either something else spooked them into running through the anomaly or it caught a straggler further down the valley than we could see and has already eaten and moved on."
"Fabulous... now, how do you propose we entice these beasts with the fine meal we've spent so much for?" Lester asked.
"I'm not sure we need to," Connor said. "Look."
All eyes turned towards the largest of the creatures, its long neck angling towards the ground and snatching a lead of cabbage up, chomping almost thoughtfully before moving forward slightly and repeating the process with some broccoli.
It didn't take long for the others to follow suit and food started disappearing from the ground even while they were still busily tossing more down, throwing bits through the anomaly as well.
For a good twenty minutes, they moved slowly towards the anomaly, eating everything else in sight first, before finally one of them must have caught the scent of the melon Blade had chopped roughly into quarters before tossing it though.
One by one, they followed each other through, until they were all gone.
"Now we just have to hope they don't come back looking for more," Lester said.
Ryan winced, almost wondering if that was asking for trouble, but a few minutes later, Connor announced the magnetic field was weakening and the anomaly started to fade, winking out of existence as if it had never been there and everyone breathed a slight sigh of relief.
Silence reigned for a moment before Lyle sadly announced, "They didn't eat the mistletoe."
Laughter burst out from several people as the soldier started tossing it around, all of them joining in with the sort of reckless abandon rarely seen in these circumstances.
Ryan got kisses from both Claudia and Abby, half of the soldiers and a blushing Connor, before he made it to Stephen, dipping his head in exaggerated display, before kissing him soundly.
"If any of that," Lester said, rubbing at his cheek ineffectually after Blade had placed a sloppy kiss there with a grin, "finds it's way into the ARC, I will fire you all."
Everyone looked almost suitably chagrin, until Lyle grabbed their boss and laid one on him, with tongue, Ryan was sure. Even Lester couldn't hide his amusement when Lyle pulled back finally, although he certainly tried.
They all returned to the ARC, mostly triumphant and still upbeat after doing a cursory clean up.
There was still a lot more to be done and Stephen had no idea how Claudia was planning to explain the remnants of vegetables left all over the pitch, or the obvious dints where the large creatures had stood, never mind the missing chunks of vegetation in the trees, but he was sure a liberal grant from the Home Office to update the club, would go a long, long way towards soothing ruffled feathers.
Stephen almost felt sorry for whoever had to balance the ARC's books, they must spend a small fortune just on covering up evidence of the anomalies.
"Who wants a beer?" Lyle asked, dropping a case down beside the anomaly detector.
"I'm certain, sweetums, that I told you no beer at work..." Lester said.
"It's Christmas, darling, I mean, really... have a heart," Lyle said.
Lester snorted. "That depends... is there one in there for me?"
Lyle grinned and tossed him a can, before everyone else made to grab their own.
Stephen watched Ryan grab one too and accepted the beer he offered, both of them leaning against the rail along the ramp up Lester's office. "Isn't this better than moping on your own?" Ryan asked.
"I wasn't moping. I'm not... it's just easier this way," Stephen said. "I can't blame him for being angry and I don't want to make things awkward for everyone else."
"He'll come around," Ryan said.
Stephen nodded, watching Cutter laugh with Claudia and wondering if that was really true. When Cutter glanced up and caught his eye, tipping his can slightly in Stephen's direction, he thought maybe it was and returned Cutter's silent toast with one of his own, before returning his attention to Ryan.
"So did Lyle keep any of that mistletoe, because I'm thinking we could have a lot of fun with it...?" Stephen asked, grinning and feeling honestly cheerful.
Ryan laughed. "It's in the boot of the SUV. I think he's..."
"Hey, guys, it's snowing," Connor shouted, rushing over to open the large doors that usually let vehicles in and out when they needed to transport something.
Stephen glanced over and sure enough, fat white flakes were falling, a light coating already forming on the ground.
"Well, you know what this means tomorrow, lads, if it settles..." Ryan called out.
Even if several of the others – Lester included - looked momentarily confused, Stephen knew exactly what it meant and joined in with the rousing chorus of 'snowball fight' from the soldiers.
Lester's 'not on your life' was met only with laughter.