It was after nightfall when Aster told her parents she was going for a walk. It had been fine by them, and so Aster headed outside, breathing in the fresh air. It was already very dark, but only slightly chilly, as winter gave way to spring. A pair of jeans and her favorite black jacket were warm enough, with the hood up. The walk into town was as short and unremarkable as ever, even moreso as she didn't go very far, not even to the dollar store. Really, the distance Aster traversed shouldn't have been very useful for anything other than a slight amount of exercise, but it had been just far enough to reach the first street lined with streetlights. Those were the real targets for the excursion, not that Aster had any particular interest in streetlights themselves. They were convenient subjects for practice; a set of obvious lights, at regular intervals, and spanning well more space than she needed at once.
Aster walked to the side of one streetlight, fixing her gaze at the next light down the line. She reached out with that extra sense at the back of her mind, moving the ethereal focal point over to the lamp. She stretched it out from a point to a surface, bending and curving it into an ovaloid. It fully surrounded the bulb but was still beneath the casing, at least if Aster had gauged the distance properly. With a little more concentration, she fixed it in place and made it more real, almost, assigning it a sense of concrete existence— No, that wasn't quite right. Aster mulled over the lack of words fitting the intuitive sense she could experience, as the light blinked out.
She had placed it right, as no light slipped out past the casing and no field of black clipped through into view. The casing was opaque enough that she couldn't peer in to see the pure black orb where the bulb should have been; that was another plus to using these lights for her practice. Aster turned her thoughts back to acknowledging that strange feeling; a sense of being, or awareness, or something tied to the location. The feeling had grown less tenuous when she willed the barrier into place. It hadn't become more solid, and certainly not concrete, but more distinct. Aster felt satisfied at having better expressed the nuance, and then shifted more attention to that odd feeling. Thinking about the semantics wasn't the primary goal for the night.
Aster focused on the spheroid, and slowly moved it to contract, and then stretching it back out again, and deforming it a little. It responded the same way it did when not presently manifested, although it perhaps took a bit more mental effort. She only made small changes, to avoid uncovering the bulb, but it was enough to confirm it. She could practice that aspect more in her room. After all, the real benefit of going outside was distance. Aster relinquished her focus, and then turned it back to the light one further down. She formed the same shape again, faster this time, and positioned it properly. She dismissed that, and repeated that with the light she was under. She cycled through the three, trying to go faster, the lights going off in a seemingly random sequence until she grew bored. She fixed her gaze on the one farthest away that she could still see, and pressed her odd awareness towards it. It grew fainter and more indistinct as the focus was pushed away from her, eventually becoming insubstantial. Aster gave that up, and reformed her barrier around the lamp above her. She then attempted to reach out, as if she hadn't manifested anything, to produce another locus and push it out towards the next light in line. Nothing was forthcoming, although she managed not to lose her focus on the first.
"So, how are you doing that?"
Aster jumped, and turned to face the sudden voice as the light above them flooded back on. Someone was on the other side of the road, and Aster watched her look both ways and saunter across the street. She was wearing a dark pink sweatshirt, and Aster wondered how she had managed not to notice someone dressed like that. She was short, and had chin-length black hair. Aster placed her face to an eager participant in her English class, although her name didn't leap to mind. She attempted to look confused, which was easy enough, because she was.
"Um. Doing what, exactly? And, hello? You startled me."
"Hello! I see we're playing that game."
"Game? Is the game 'be as offputtingly cryptic as possible'?"
"Here, I'll elaborate for you. The lights were flickering oddly for the last five minutes, and you were standing here, staring at them like they were the most interesting things in the world. And now that I've distracted you, that stopped. Soooo... How did you do it?"
Aster spared a glance to the lights, which were naturally enough not doing anything of note anymore. Well. Frankly, there wasn't much she could do to argue that point. Successful-if-unnecessary secrecy for how long, and this is how she's busted? By a random classmate taking a walk? Aster looked back at the not-really-stranger, who was smugly smiling of all things, and narrowed her eyes.
"Alright, I have a question. You're saying you were standing there, watching me for five minutes? That's a bit suspect."
"Point taken! I was just watching the fun little lights show, at first. Then I happened to realize you were putting on the public performance, and curiosity got the best of me. Here, let's do this over. I'm Holly. You're Aster, right? We share some classes."
"That's me. It's nice to properly meet you, Holly. Well, no. It's bewildering to properly meet you."
Holly grinned at that, and Aster took a deep breath. This was just bizarre. They had never interacted, but it wasn't weird Holly knew her name— it wasn't particularly common, after all. And for that matter, now that she heard it, Holly's name did ring a bell. Everything else about the exchange, though?
"Nice to meet you too, Aster. Genuinely! So, that out of the way, may I pretty please with a cherry on top ask what is the voodoo that you do?"
"Oh. Back to that? For someone that definitely wasn't spying on me, you're really prying."
"Well, yeah. Let me soapbox for a second. This is really interesting. It's the most interesting thing in the world! I thought you would understand that. Here you are, casually breaking the laws of physics with your mind for some evening entertainment. How could I see that and not ask about it? Do you control electricity? What else can you do? You ask the teacher questions in science classes, right? Same thing, basically. Plus you're obviously being guarded about it, which is more intriguing. That much is just human nature."
"I guess that makes sense. But you should really work on your tact. Besides, pressing the matter doesn't actually make me more likely to tell you. That's also just human nature, I'm pretty sure."
"Aw. I really thought you'd get it. Well, shows me not to assume so much. Here, how about we make a trade? I was saving it for a dramatic reveal, but I have a special power, too. I'd be happy to tell you all about it, in exchange. I could even go first, if you want."
"You have a preternatural power?"
"You actually say 'preternatural'? Oh wow."
"That is the word for it. It has a better nuance than 'supernatural', since it has some implication that it is ultimately explicable, and—"
Aster was a little annoyed as the tone and volume cut her off, followed by the sudden glare of bright light. Aster squinted, taking a half-step back as her eyes adjusted. It wasn't the streetlight, but instead coming from Holly. There was a bright disc positioned behind her head, a nimbus of stark, sterile white shedding a glare all around it. It stung her eyes to look at it, like an overly strong fluorescent bulb. Holly still looked all too pleased with herself, and Aster noted her eyes weren't open very wide. It was impressive, certainly helped by its suddenness, and Aster was very curious. But first of all, that was pretty obnoxious. Aster reached out with her mind and drew a clumsy oval around the light source. Like any normal illumination, it was stopped at the boundary, and so the glare subsided. Holly was surprised for a second, and turned around to see what looked like a gaping void. Aster noted some satisfaction of her own at the uncertain look that engendered, and then they were both grinning.
"So, this trade works a little too well."
"No kidding. Would that make my hand vanish, if I stuck it in there?"
"No. Would your light show burn mine? It's still in there, I think."
"Also a no, it isn't hot. I didn't do anything to make it go away if you didn't. Let's see?"
"Sure. Or... Maybe let's do this on a smaller scale? I don't want to blind a car going by, or something."
"It's not that bright. But fine, let's be more discreet. I can do something smaller."
Holly dismissed her light, and Aster followed suit with her elliptical shape. This time, Holly summoned a small orb of that same stark white, floating above the palm of her hand. It was still a harsh kind of light, but not overwhelmingly so at this scale. Aster formed a spherical shell around it, which again blocked out the illumination. She dismissed it, and Holly's light was still there, unchanged. Next, Aster surrounded it again, and slowly moved her sphere horizontally, phasing through the orb. Or through where the orb had been, as nothing was there in its place. Aster was surprised, but Holly looked quite puzzled.
"That's really weird. I can still feel it, it should still be there. Maybe it's inside your sphere?"
Aster furrowed her brow, and with concentration marked a seam along one half-ring of the sphere, and slowly drew the manifold apart, unfurling it into a two-dimensional disc. But that didn't reveal the ball of light, or anything else. Aster moved it in place, ascending upwards, but nothing emerged through it nor otherwise revealed itself. Holly confirmed she could still feel her link to her power, and so Aster let go of her own, the disc vanishing. The light still didn't spring back.
"And there it went. It's gone, now that yours is. That's really weird."
"You're not wrong. But it's super interesting! You're sure you could still tell it was there when it first disappeared, right?"
"Right. It's pretty hard not to know. It's some weird feeling, it's..."
"There in the back of your head, almost? A sense you can never quite put your finger on, but comes into focus when you use it?"
"Yes! That's it! Oh, this is fun."
"It really is! It makes me feel more than a bit silly for hiding this from everybody."
"Hiding it? Oh, is that why you were messing with the streetlights, when making pitch black expanses has so much more pizazz?"
"You have me there. I was experimenting. How much I could do, that sort of thing. This is much more interesting, though!"
As she spoke, she set a new focus and stretched it out into a rectangle. As far as Aster could tell, it was depthless. Infinitesimally thin, an entity of two dimensions rather than three. She advanced it forward in space, passing it through another of Holly's lights. Nothing but air was left behind it, and Aster stopped it partway through. The forward quarter of the light was still shining, backed by the black void. It was almost like an impossible eclipse, looking utterly surreal as the shedding light failed to brighten the absolute black periphery of Aster's power. The conflicting cues messed with the mind's instinctive gauge for perspective, and Aster really felt as though she was peering at some hole torn into space. She moved her head, took a few steps, and finally reached out to touch it. But there was nothing to touch, and her hand passed through the light and the void, and into the night air.
"Yeah. This is crazy. The really weird thing is that it still feels like the whole light is still there. Try moving it backwards?"
The rectangle retreated, again leaving nothing but air in its wake. The pared down light shined freely on all sides again, but nothing had been restored to it. It was a little difficult to tell, with the way it gave off that sterile glow, but it looked like a good chunk of it had been cleanly cut off.
"And you can still feel the whole thing there?"
"Yes. Even though it's obviously not."
The rectangle vanished from existence, whatever claim it had to actually existing to begin with.
"Now I can only sense the part that I can see. Like the rest vanished, but only just now."
"Oh! That's really intriguing!"
"It is. But it also felt really eerie to have that perspective cut up like that. And when it was severed, earlier."
"Sorry about that. We don't need to do any more messing around with the combination, then. Not that I could force you to, anyways. This has all been very illuminating already."
"You magically trap the light in that midnight whatever you make, and it works on light from powers. Is that more than your lunchtable science club generally discovers in a research session?"
"Uh. That's not really something we do, actually."
"Right. You don't hang out with them out of that curiosity, got it. And, your power just gave me the heebie-jeebies, but I'd guess it isn't the type to usually do that. It does look a little freaky, but..."
"Where are you going with this?"
"Why are you keeping it a secret, then? If anything, it would make you seem less weird, if that's it."
"It's not. I really don't care about that sort of thing. Anyways, you're prying again."
"I know. Curiosity killed the cat, but I feel like going out on a limb anyways. Something really bad happened, right? And that's why you got shadow powers. That's why you were all cagey about it, even though you leapt at the chance to mess around with them. It's why you're friends with those two, maybe. So, how close am I? Did I hit the nail on the head?"
Aster's smile had faded progressively with the conversation's new turn, but that last thing made her frown. Back to this strange intrusive questioning bit? And now it was worse, undeniably personal and rather less justified than asking about her power display. And, 'those two'? She should have been leerier. Of course Holly didn't know her as 'That one girl from class' or even 'The girl with the kinda weird name', it was as 'The girl who sits with the freaks'. And that guess...
"No. What would even make you say that? And, my powers have nothing to do with who my friends are. Theirs don't, either. Apparently, this is a surprise to everyone else, but they're all pleasant people."
"Right. Sorry, sorry, I didn't mean to rile you up. I think I gave the wrong impression. It's not the powers, it's..."
"It's what, then?"
"It's not that everybody thinks your friends' powers are creepy to look at. That's part of it, obviously, but... you're all a little unapproachable. It's bad blood with a face. The face being spooky is just a little extra. I'm being pushy, and jumping to conclusions, but the thought that you had your own awful experience just makes a lot of sense, you know?"
"I... No, I don't know. I really don't."
"Really? Come on. Powers come from emotional incidents, for whatever bizarre reason. One way or another, we all fit that bill. Emily had that whole thing in front of everyone. And Diana... I mean, everybody knows she jumped off a bridge."
Aster turned around and started walking home. Holly said something in protest, but didn't follow. Aster sped up her pace anyways, trudging along the short way home. It was easier to commit to indignation than entertain her actual thoughts on the matter. It wasn't really overreacting, was it? Why would she just say that? Why did anybody, much less 'everybody', know about that to begin with? Diana hadn't ever told her about the specifics, not that she had ever entertained the thought of asking. And if Holly really thought she might be carrying some comparable baggage, why would she just ask about it?
She wasn't, though. Nothing even slightly close. Holly was about as far off the mark as she could be with that guess. But she had been absolutely right that Emily and Diana had been through awful circumstances that left them with powers, which themselves caused even more problems. But she herself had got an interesting power from an entirely pleasant, frankly wonderful experience. She knew it was a stupid reaction, but she still felt guilty about that. That was why she had been hiding it, although apparently it wasn't a secret she had much real intention of keeping.
Aster approached her house, and tried to look less sullen. This was probably something best put off her mind for a minute, anyways. She opened the door and stepped inside, flashing a small smile at her parents. They were on the couch, watching something on television. At the moment it was a commercial, belting out some jingle she had involuntarily memorized. Aster kicked off her shoes and wandered over, but didn't take a seat.
"Hi again. What's on?"
"Nothing much. Comedy."
"Did you have a nice walk? You were out for a bit."
"I did. I'm glad to be inside again, though. I think I'll head to my room for a bit."
"Well okay. Glad you're keeping up with exercise, hun."
"Feel free to come back out. Channel's all yours if you want to watch something else."
She went to her room, shut the door, and laid down on her bed. She stared up at the ceiling for a minute or two, letting her thoughts run their course before taking out her phone. She opened the texts, tapping away at a new message to send to her cousin. She needed to talk to somebody, but didn't want to rashly jump into sharing it with everyone just because she was a little upset. In the end, she didn't even come right out with it.
'Hello, Lily. Would now be a good time to talk? I have something to ask you. It's a bit of a silly question, frankly. To be a little less cagey, I'm wondering about the matter of keeping secrets. If there's something you just don't really feel like telling anybody about, but there's no good reason to hold it back, do you think it would be better to just come out with it? Or continue to not talk about it until the mood or opportunity comes along?'
Looking back over it, Aster couldn't help but notice it was unnecessarily vague and prevaricating, but it had already sent. She hadn't actually explained it, but she had pretty much committed to do that now. If only to avoid Lily getting the wrong idea about whatever she was talking about, a prospect which was starting to loom in her thoughts as an increasingly likely outcome. She decided to wait for a response before overcorrecting for some potential misunderstanding. Several more minutes' wait brought no response, so with a sigh, Aster stood up off of her bed and stretched. That could wait for Lily's convenience, and her mind was more willing to wander away from the earlier encounter. She stepped back out into the living room and joined her parents on the couch. There was still some Friday night to while away.