Cort coughed, a nasty wet rattle that made people standing nearby back away, covering their own mouths and noses. The cough lasted nearly a whole minute, at the end of which he was folded over on himself, his head down by his feet and his chest hurting with every spasm. A warm hand rested on his shoulder, then gently pulled him back upright.
“Now then, Mr. Stretch,” said a voice, “have you remembered to take your medication this morning?” The nurse at his shoulder was middle-aged and wore her body comfortably. Her hair was just starting to grey, and a strand of it fell, attractively he thought, across one eye.
“Yes,” he said, shuddering as he heaved a huge breath and got air back into his body. “Bloody yes, of course I have.”
“There’s no need to swear, Mr. Stretch,” said the nurse, but her voice was still friendly. She said this all the time to all the residents. “That cough is sounding worse. I think you ought to go and see the doctor today. Get dressed and I–“
“I killed the Doctor!” Cort jolted upright and pulled his dressing-gown tightly around his thin, scarred chest. “Three times!”
“That’s right,” said the nurse, smiling. As part of her job she was required to learn all of the significant events of her patients’s history. She stepped slightly to one side, just in case. “And the third time, he stayed dead, so it can’t be him I meant, can it Mr. Stretch?”
“Hmmm,” said Cort, unwilling to back down. His fights with the Doctor had been gruelling, days-long battles that had caused significant architectural damage, and had taken their toll on both of them. During the first fight the Doctor had managed to destroy the only hospital in a fifty-mile radius, and during the second they’d done enough damage to a nuclear power plant between them that it had had to be immediately decommissioned. Cort had a sneaking suspicion that the real reason he’d won the third fight was the radiation damage that the Doctor had sustained by Cort leaving his body in a pool of radioactive cooling water.
“So you’ll get dressed,” said the nurse, “and I’ll take you up to see Dr. Hernandez in twenty minutes. Can you do that for me?”
Cort nodded, his head bobbing and his neck elongating. The nurse laid one hand back on his shoulder, and gently pushed on his forehead, helping him retract his neck back to a normal length. Cort said nothing, but he was quietly grateful.
After the nurse left, he pulled the bed-covers back and swung his legs over the edge. His hips ached abominably as they did every morning when he tried to get up, and he forced himself to stretch his legs out until his feet touched the floor and he could effortlessly stand up. Then he concentrated, shrinking his legs back down to his normal height, and then further until he was almost just feet, knees and torso. Finally he stretched back up again, and let out a breath he hadn’t realised he was holding. He wiped his eyes, telling himself that the wetness was just the effects of the coughing.
As he dressed, he resisted the temptation to just stretch his arms out across the room, opening the wardrobe and collecting his clothes. Instead he forced himself to walk over and collect them, just like a normal person. The word normal left a slightly bitter taste in his mouth; he wasn’t normal, and he hadn’t been for years. If he’d been normal he’d never have been able to take on the Doctor (three times!) and come away victorious. He’d never have been able to save eighty-two people from a collapsing skyscraper, or face down Bad Kitty over twenty-eight times, twice in council meetings!
“Are you ready, Mr. Stretch?” The nurses were always careful to use the ageing superheroes' public names, and never their private ones. It was a small touch of respect that the superheroes were ridiculously grateful for. “Dr. Hernandez is expecting you.” She held out her arm, and Cort took it, hating himself as he rested his feather-weight frame on her, and limped slowly from his room.
The room next to him had the door slightly ajar, and he could see the beautiful Fizz Mission sat up in bed, staring out of the window. The nurses kept her on Mogadon to try and keep her away from her memories, and there were serious consequences to anyone who tried to talk to her without written permission from the matron. After that they passed a closed door, which was General Tcho-Tcho’s room; that the door was closed meant he was either sleeping or a dimensional reconfiguration of his body had gone wrong again. After that was a door on the other side of the corridor that was Bad Kitty’s room, and then they were at the lift.
“I used to be able to just lean out of the window, stretch up to the fifth floor and climb in the window there,” said Cort. “I hate having to take lifts.”
“There’s always the stairs,” said the nurse, and he fell silent again.
Dr. Hernandez’s office was two doors away from the lift, and he was stood at the door, waiting to take Cort’s arm from the nurse and lead him to the examining couch. Cort sat down, grateful for the relief from aching joints, and looked at the doctor.
“Nurse tells me that your cough is getting worse,” said Dr. Hernandez. He was in his fifties, with oiled-back white hair, facial hair modelled on Colonel Sanders, and knotty fingers in huge hands. “And we will investigate that shortly. But first, tell me how your memory is?”
Cort sighed, and started talking. All his visits with Dr. Hernandez were the same, the doctor would check his memories, check his physical condition, and perform a psychological evaluation before he’d address the reported symptoms. Cort really hoped that if he had a heart-attack it wasn’t Dr. Hernandez who was first on the scene. Finally Dr. Hernandez pulled out his stethoscope and listened to Cort’s chest, asking him to cough a little. Cort, who had been trying to control his cough for the whole meeting, gladly let himself start coughing. To his surprise, he found he couldn’t stop, and then everything went black. As his vision disappeared, he heard a siren sound, and dimly realised that Dr. Hernandez must have pressed the alarm button in his office.