Chapter 182

                Sure as she’d been about her decision to walk away from the program, Mary hadn’t quite been as prepared as she thought for how immediately different her life would become. Not for an instant did she regret the choice, it was right for her and she knew that to be true in the deepest parts of her heart, but Mary did wish she’d been better mentally braced for the impending changes.

                Time was the biggest shift. In the span of a few conversations and a formal withdrawal from the HCP, she suddenly found herself with an overwhelming amount of the stuff. Even with taking more shifts at Supper with Supers and studying ahead on her senior level homework, she couldn’t manage to fill a day. Mary was too used to spending half of her time underground, training and learning and working out to be even the slightest bit better than when she’d started the day. Now it was all given back to her, and like an itchy, over-sized sweater Mary wasn’t entirely sure what to do with her unexpected gift.

                It might not have been so bad if she’d had her friends around, but now that she was out of the HCP she was starting to truly see how much it dominated the lives of its participants. Between their classes, their training, and their jobs, Mary felt like she’d gone from spending every minute around her friends to only seeing them for fleeting windows. Her world felt different, even though she knew it wasn’t. Her world hadn’t changed, she had, and now she was just seeing her old reality from a new vantage point.

                By the third week of her freedom, Mary began to grow accustomed to the new arrangement. The extra time allowed her to start filling out graduate program applications, and she began to rework her schedule so that her own free time lined up better with her friends’. Things weren’t so bad, although part of her wondered how easy the situation would be to remedy if she hadn’t still been living with them. Partial memory-wipes were generally viewed as a harsh, yet necessary, part of purging someone from the program. A way to ensure the safety of those who remained. Only now, seeing it from this side, Mary couldn’t help wondering if those wipes weren’t also for the benefit of the students leaving. It was impossible to miss what you couldn’t recall, or to try and hang on to something that was already fading if you had no idea where to grab. Mary wondered if any sort of counseling was provided to those cut from the HCP. She hadn’t been given that offer, but between the fact that she’d chosen to quit and Dean Blaine’s awareness that her memory was still intact maybe it had been deemed unnecessary. It was something to look into; she might be years from having enough degrees to do the job but someone should be on it.

                To her surprise, Mary found herself spending much of her newly acquired downtime with Nick. Since he had a looser schedule and lived nearby, it seemed natural to keep turning up and bothering him when she was bored. That was the cover story, anyway. The truth of the matter, which he surely knew yet chose not to comment on, was that Mary was trying to stay close in case he needed to talk. Nick was handling the loss of Gerry well, better than she’d expected, but she could hear enough of his thoughts to know the pain was still tearing him up. And that Nick enjoyed having someone else around, even if he would never say it out loud. Plus, she liked the company as well.

                  All things considered it wasn’t a perfectly smooth transition back to quasi-civilian life, but it wasn’t nearly as rocky as it could have been. Mary found a balance between her old world and the foundations for a new one she was laying, which was what made it all the more shocking one morning at a coffee shop when a familiar face plopped down into the other side of her booth. Mary’s textbooks were spread out as she worked, so deep into her studies that for a moment she didn’t even notice the new presence. It was unnerving, she had to turn off her telepathy to focus but Mary had still never quite gotten used to people sneaking up on her. Especially people from the HCP.

                “Good morning, Mary.” Dr. Moran was smiling, looking as put-together as always. She’d been sitting for less than a minute when one of the shop’s employees showed up with a steaming mug of coffee that was set down wordlessly in front of her. “I hope I’m not interrupting, but I wondered if we might have a chat. If not today, then perhaps we could schedule a better time.”

                “You know, I feel like way too many people are comfortable with just dropping in while I’m out doing my own thing.” In spite of her words, Mary began to shut her books. Whatever this was, it probably deserved her full attention.

                “Apologies, my schedule is tight so I tend to use open spots as best I can. Like I said though, if this is a bad time then we can pick another,” Dr. Moran replied.

                Mary finished closing her books and shoved them to the side of the table. “No, it’s okay. You’re a better surprise guest than my last one. What’s going on?”

                Dr. Moran tilted her head slightly, nodding to the nearby clusters of regular people going about their day. “I’ve come to talk to you about a possible opportunity, however at this stage I’m afraid I won’t be able to go into much depth. Confidentiality agreements and all that. Much of what I’m going to cover will have to go unsaid.”

                If there was a more blatant way to communicate “read my thoughts” Mary couldn’t imagine what it would be, so she focused on listening to Dr. Moran’s mind while the HCP’s counselor continued to speak.

                “I heard through the grapevine that you were interested in taking your education in a new, specialized direction. Something akin to what I do. That seemed like a topic worth discussing, since much of my training was quite specialized. The truth is, there aren’t a whole lot of people in my field, Mary. Not as many as there should be, and much of the research for treatment is still confined to the minds pioneering it. There isn’t a good formal system in place, is what I’m trying to say. So, rather than have you, and others interested in applied psych, start from scratch, it seemed more prudent to let you learn from those who have come before.”

                While Dr. Moran’s words made things clear enough to figure out the general meaning of her proposal, her thoughts helped fill in the gaps nicely. Therapy and counseling of Heroes was still considered a niche field of study, with nowhere near as much education and research going into it as other areas. Dr. Moran was offering to let Mary work under her, or someone like her, in grad school to gain firsthand experience.

                “Aren’t there going to be clearance issues?” Mary asked.

                “Not at all. I’ve been pitching this sort of program for years now. Thanks to the backing of some higher-ups they’ve finally agreed to sign off of a trial version. And you, you are a prime candidate. My first choice, in fact.” Dr. Moran was still smiling as she mentally rattled off the details: the new head of the DVA had agreed that not enough funding was going into treating the long-term mental side-effects of the job, so several programs were being given trials. The DVA would permit her to work with and remember HCP students and Heroes, so long as she signed an obscene amount of non-disclosure documentation.

                “Sounds intriguing,” Mary said at last. “Maybe we can set up a meeting to talk about it more in depth?”

                “I’ll see about setting up a time. But if you’re interested, I’ll go ahead and start getting the preliminary paperwork done. There’s going to be a lot of it, for both of us, so I hope you’re not susceptible to hand-cramps.” Dr. Moran lifted her still steaming mug of coffee and downed the entire beverage in a rapid gulp. She noticed the shocked looked on Mary’s face and gave a half-hearted shrug. “Learned skill. I told you, I don’t have a lot of windows of free time. In fact, this one is up. We’ll put something together, Mary. I look forward to talking with you about the topic further.”

                With that, Dr. Moran was up and out the door, a handful of bills on the table to pay for her drink. Mary stared at the cash for a few seconds before getting back to her studies. Probably best to work ahead while she could.

                It seemed her days of leisure time would soon be coming to an end once more.