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Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.

It was just past 1 AM in Aston. A still, moonless night hung over the sleepy college town. Even in the wee hours of Sunday morning, the air was mild, a humidity that signaled the start of summer. The streets were mostly empty, save for the occasional group university students heading to and from the local bars.  

One of the few places that remained open so late was Cicero’s. The small convenience store was like a lighthouse in the darkness of the dormant neighborhood. Light from humming fluorescent bulbs illuminated the surrounding area, giving a silver glow to the fog that rolled over the pavement. The store was open twenty-four hours a day and, as was usual after midnight, business was absolutely dead. Two clerks, seemingly the only people awake in all of town at the moment, were hunched over the front desk.

“You can't keep moving the goalposts.” Sebastian said through a yawn as he lined up the folded triangle of paper. “It's cheating.”

On the opposite side of the register, Samara rolled her eyes. She scooted forward to hold her hands closer. “That better?”

“Honestly, it doesn’t really make a difference. I’m gonna win either way.” He smirked as her olive complexion reddened. Brushing a strand of charcoal black hair out of his eyes, he sent the paper football through the air with a nonchalant flick. “Don't get mad at me because you suck at this!”

“I do not suck!” The Arab girl growled as the paper football split the uprights created by her index fingers. 

She'd just lost her third game in a row.

Samara and Sebastian were almost always stuck with the night shift on weekends. They attended the same university, though Samara was a senior and Sebastian a junior. Despite the fact that they hardly interacted outside work, the pair had probably spent more Saturday nights together than they did with any of their actual friends over the past few months. Most of those hours were spent just trying to keep each other awake until sunrise.   

“I’m gonna grab a coffee from the break room. Be back in ten.” Samara huffed, hopping down from her stool. Sebastian lazily saluted as she left him to guard the register. 

He propped an elbow up on the desk, resting his chin in his palm. Now that he was completely alone, the only sound in the entire store was the ambient whir of central air conditioning. There was nothing to do but survey idle rows of chips and candy. Sebastian held out for maybe five minutes before his eyelids started to feel heavy. He was on the brink of dozing off when the sensor at the front door chimed, signaling the arrival of a patron.

 Man your battle stations! All hands on deck! Sebastian thought, shaking the drowsiness out of his head. He glanced at the store’s entrance and had to do an actual double take. It wasn't one customer but a group of three.

A trio of young women roughly his age noisily streamed in. Judging by their outfits, they were coming from a lively night out. He could make out their glittery makeup and hear the click of high heels even from a distance. Sebastian suddenly felt very underdressed in his blue uniform polo and jeans. Mercifully, none of them acknowledged his existence as they chattered amongst themselves like exotic birds, venturing deeper into the store. He took the moment to comb a hand through his wavy, dark locks. 

It took several minutes but eventually the girls arrived at the register with armfuls of snacks and drinks. Now that they were up close, Sebastian could tell they'd all had more than a little to drink. He gave the party a quick look up and down. “I take it you guys just rolled out of bed?” He remarked flatly as he started scanning.

The brunette in the center, who couldn’t have been much taller than five feet, gave him a sleepy smile. “That’s literally where we’re gonna be in ten minutes. We've been out since, like, eight.” She pulled a phone from the pocket of her shorts. Sebastian winced when she held it up to the register.

“Uh, you actually can’t pay digitally right now. The machine’s busted.”


“Shit!” She turned to the girl on her right. “Marie, you got cash?” 

The auburn-haired Marie, as she was apparently named, gave a beleaguered sigh. It was impossible not to gawk at how curvy she was as she patted herself down, jiggling dangerously in a shimmery gold dress. Sebastian tried especially hard to pry his eyes away when she plunged a dainty hand into her cleavage. Even if she had money on her, he wouldn't have been surprised if she’d lost it in there. 

“I got nothin’!” Marie shrugged, sending a seismic shudder through her chest. 

To Sebastian’s relief the third girl spoke up, giving him a reason to look anywhere else. “I only have my phone.” She said with a pout he had to look up to observe. She was significantly taller than her friends, elevated over six feet in heels. She chewed her plump lower lip, which was painted a dark red to compliment her warm complexion. “I guess we have to put everything back, huh?”

He was about to give an apologetic “yes” when the words caught in his throat. He found himself paralyzed by three pleading expressions. Be strong, man. Be strong! As if she could read his thoughts, the redhead leaned forward. Her heavy chest squashed against the desk. Sebastian’s eyes were on hers, though. Her piercing blue gaze was suddenly impossible to break. 

“You could let us slide, right? Just this one time...” She rested her hand on the back of his, giving it a light squeeze.

The way she said it, it sounded like a question but something in her voice clicked in Sebastian’s mind. It felt like a command. An impulse. “I-I could let you slide, right. Just this one time…” 

“Really? You'd do that for us??” Her expression turned hopeful. He nodded hesitantly, packing their things into a bag. In that moment, she could’ve asked him to empty the register and he might’ve considered doing it.  

“Y-yeah. It’s not like you guys have that much stuff any-”

“New game idea: I kick your ass in a paper airplane contest!” Samara’s interruption shattered the moment. She stopped in her tracks on the way out of the break room, one dark eyebrow arched at the scene. “...What's going on here?”

“Well, they don’t have any cash but they only have a couple items so I was gonna let…them…go?” Sebastian’s explanation gradually died as he was hit with Samara’s patented You Jackass stare. 

She marched over to the register, putting herself between her coworker and the three would-be customers. “Sorry, but we can't just give you guys everything for free. No matter how…politely you ask.” She gave Marie a disapproving look.

The tall girl turned to her companions, her thick mane of braids flowing with the motion. “The next closest store is, like, three blocks away!”

“We’re not going to another store. It’ll be two o'clock by the time we get back to the apartment.” The redhead said. Her eyes took on an icy, almost apathetic aura. All the warmth she’d shown Sebastian was gone in an instant. She turned to the shorter girl, talking to her friend as if the two clerks weren't even in the room. “Laura, why don’t you try? You learned how to ask the really nice way right?”

“I've been reading about it but I haven’t actually started practicing yet...”

Samara scowled at the bizarre back-and-forth. “Look, if you can't pay, you gotta go. Feel free to leave the stuff up here. We'll put it back.”

The tall one pushed her way to the center. “I'll do it!” She stared down at Samara with all the confidence in the world and cleared her throat. “You will let us take these things for free.”

Behind her, Laura and Marie face-palmed almost simultaneously.   

“We will not do that, actually!” Samara shot back, crossing her arms. 

Undeterred, the brown-skinned girl tried again. This time, she waved a hand dramatically. “You will let us take these things for free.”

“Oh, I see what she's doing here!” Sebastian cut in before the increasingly annoyed Samara could respond. He put on a blank expression. “These aren't the droids we're looking for!”

“Jord!” Laura hissed. “You can't just tell them what you want, you have to say the words first!” Before either cashier could react, the petite girl took a deep breath of concentration. When she spoke again her voice changed in a way that was almost imperceptible. She still had an airy, high-pitched intonation but there was something behind her words. An otherworldly bass that thrummed in Sebastian and Samara's very bones. It was so jarring, neither registered she wasn't even speaking English.

She could’ve been talking (chanting?) for thirty seconds or half an hour. When she finally stopped, Marie stepped forward to observe Samara. “Did it work?” She squinted, bringing her obnoxiously pretty face in close.  

Samara was about to give her a long, expletive-filled answer but nothing came out. It was like her diaphragm, her whole torso, was closing in and forcing all the air out. She tried to take a step back but she couldn't get her body to move. The sensation wasn't painful per se, but every nerve in her body felt numb. The edges of her vision began to blur rapidly. 

“Uh, guys…” Someone said. It was suddenly very difficult to pin down who specifically was speaking. The girls all stepped back in unison. Or was Samara getting further away somehow? She couldn't tell. 

Sebastian. She thought about her coworker for the first time in what felt like ages. Forcing her eyes to dart in his direction, she was absurdly relieved to find he was still by her side. But something was changing. The world around him was shifting, melting outward. He was never the tallest guy at about 5’8, but why was the surface of the desk above his eyeline?  

Samara wasn't sure how or when she got on the floor. One instant she was standing, the next she was laying against the linoleum. Its cool surface felt like it was expanding against her body.

Then there was the thunder. Had it started storming outside? She didn’t remember getting a weather alert on her phone. A series of cracks so sharp and loud they could only be lightning rang in her ears. The ground quaked in time with each explosion of sound. Despite the noise, she found herself dozing off. She felt very drowsy all of a sudden. Should’ve made a second cup of coffee... 

Just before she slipped into slumber, a huge mass clunked down in the distance. A towering, black…building? Spaceship? For the life of her, Samara couldn’t identify the large structure that had dropped into view. With her increasingly hazy vision, she could just barely make out a few rotund pinkish hills that peeked out of an opening in the front. More thunder rang out from above, only this time it was clear and high-pitched and strangely…intelligible?


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