Chapter II — Summerset
With a click and a ding, the thick double doors of the Ponyville General elevator slid open to reveal a hallway of stone-gray plaster and cheaply laid white tiles. A young earth pony filly with a scarlet mane stepped apprehensively out of its confines and into the soulless hallway. Her gaze flipped from left to right, a bright pink bow in her mane bobbing ever so slightly as her head turned back and forth between two halls at an intersection. Finally, with a deep, pensive breath, she set her course to the left and trotted forth with steely determination. If anypony had looked closely, they might have seen beads of sweat under her low-hanging bangs.
Apple Bloom's eyes flicked between the labels positioned beside the doors of the rooms she passed, her hooves clopping softly on the hard floor beneath. Her breathing was becoming slightly more noticeable, and she shivered as she cantered somewhat faster through the corridor. The flickering flourescent tubes above shone with cold light, blinding more than comforting. The oppressive atmosphere was complemented by the stench of disinfectants.
Apple Bloom ran now, trembling, neck swinging wildly from sign to sign, her gasping breaths coming quickly. With no sense of direction, she thundered down the hospital hallway—until she ran face-first into the legs of Nurse Redheart.
"Oof!" Apple Bloom tumbled backwards, falling flat against the tiled floor.
"Oh my goodness!" Nurse Redheart stumbled, a clipboard in her mouth clacking as it fell to the ground. "Sweetie, are you alright?"
"Nnngh..." Apple Bloom shook herself as she wobbled to her hooves. "Y-yeah, I'm alright... Sorry, I shoulda been watchin' where I was headed..."
"Oh, don't worry too much about it. I'm more worried about you!" Nurse Redheart sat on her haunches, leaning down to inspect Apple Bloom.
"Oh my, this looks serious!" she said with mock surprise. "But don't you worry, sweetie, it's nothing a few stitches can't fix."
Apple Bloom's pupils shrunk, and she shifted with an audible gulp. A nervous twitch, and she squeaked out, "S-stitches?"
"Of course, just a few to make sure you'll be okay," Nurse Redheart proclaimed, biting back a chuckle. "It's not so bad, I promise!"
"N-no stitches for me, th-thanks..." Apple Bloom cringed behind a toothy smile.
"Oh, are you sure you'll be alright though? That was quite a nasty tumble you took, deary, and you are in a hospital after all." The nurse tussled the farm filly's mane with a white hoof. "It wouldn't be difficult, just a few needles here and there." She drew a line across Apple Bloom's forehead with the tip of her hoof to punctuate.
Paralyzed, all Apple Bloom could do was whimper, eyes twitching slightly as she fell to her rump.
"Are you sure you'll be okay?"
"Wh-what? Okay? I'm Apple Bloom. I-I mean, I'm okay! I'm Apple Bloom and I'm okay!"
"Well..." Nurse Redheart snickered as she placed the clipboard in a transparent green tray hanging on a nearby door. "If you insist. But you have to promise not to go running around so recklessly anymore, alright? Next time you might get really hurt, and nopony wants that," she said.
"I-I won't! Promise!" Apple Bloom shook her head vigorously, her bow shaking to the side and hanging off her mane..
"Heeheehee... Mmmm. Well if you say so, sweetie." Nurse Redheart smiled, trotting over and shifting Apple Bloom's bow back into place. Apple Bloom flashed a sheepish grin, and the nurse continued, "But would you mind telling me why you were in such a hurry? Maybe I can help find whatever you were looking for?"
Apple Bloom's face fell, her ears folding back and her gaze dropping to the floor. Pawing a hoof across the dusty floor, she let out a melancholy sigh before answering. "I... I'm here lookin' for my friend. Sh-she's kinda sick, so I thought I'd stop by and say hi, maybe cheer her up a bit..."
"Well aren't you just the best friend a pony could ask for?" Nurse Redheart said sweetly. "I'm sure I can help you find whoever you're looking for. What's your friend's name?"
For a moment, silence. Then, Apple Bloom mumbled something to the floor, her gaze never once shifting from her hooves.
The nurse shifted, squinting as she said, "I'm sorry, sweetie, could you speak up?"
Nurse Redheart's blue eyes softened, and she held back a somber frown while forcing a comforting smile to her face. "Of course, Miss Apple Bloom. I'll show you to your friend's room. Just follow me."
Apple Bloom sheepishly nodded. The nurse turned the way Apple Bloom had come from. Mentally berating herself for being so clumsy, Apple Bloom followed after Nurse Redheart, tiny yellow legs reaching a canter to keep up.
A few minutes of walking, and the two ponies came to a large wooden door on the left side of the hallway. The space for the label was empty, and though Apple Bloom could see the lights were on under the door, no sound was heard from within.
"I'll leave you two alone," the nurse said, stepping aside. "I'll be sure to come back in a little while and see how you're doing, okay?" Apple Bloom did nothing to respond, instead staring blankly at the door. It seemed to be growing taller by the second.
A quick sigh, and then, "It's alright, sweetie, just go ahead. She'll be happy to see you, I promise." With that, Nurse Redheart walked slowly away, eventually rounding a corner. With a deep breath, Apple Bloom suppressed a shudder and marched forward, nudging the door open with a hoof.
A skipping earth pony filly drifted melodiously through the somber building, her hooves clopping joyously across the tile floor of the Ponyville General hallway. She danced past doors of occupied and empty rooms—humming all the way—as her cheese-colored coat caught the pale light of the fluorescent tubing above. Atop her head was a somewhat goofy black top hat, bouncing around her bare scalp with each stride. She rounded a corner, finding one of the hospital staff’s nurse ponies removing an overburdened clipboard from the transparent green plastic bin affixed to one of the doors.
“Heya, Miss Tenderheart! How’s the morning been?” she chimed like an early morning songbird.
A surprised jump, and the nurse yelped and dropped the clipboard to the floor in a clattering mess. The hinge that had struggled to hold back the tides of paper and ink gave in, sending various pages and documents dancing through the air and fluttering around in a blizzard of records and reviews. What few pages that hadn’t been caught in the maelstrom somehow found themselves coating Nurse Tenderheart from head to hoof, leaving only a pair of glowering eyes visible.
“Heeheehee—Whoops!” Summerset giggled to herself, holding a hoof to her to stifle back any more smirks. “Looks like you’ve got this—heeheehee—covered! Snnkkkt-hahahaha!” With that, she skipped away, leaving a stunned and exasperated mare to clean up the mess of a hallway.
The prancing filly hummed a melody to the hospital’s lonely walls. A hop, skip, and a jump, and she nearly tumbled over her own hooves—giggling madly the whole time—as she skidded to a stop just outside a towering pair of cyan double doors. Without even a second’s thought, she leapt forward.
She stood before a large cafeteria room containing various tables and food stands. A few scattered ponies were spread around the room, chatting in hushed tones or otherwise silent. She took a single moment of stillness to close her eyes and breathe deeply of scents, a blissful smile dancing gracefully across her features as she inhaled. The smell of pastries was the first thing she noticed; most likely muffins—probably blueberry—with a hint of sugar lacing them.
Her giggling fell back into a hum once more, the same melody blessing the air about her that had followed her hoofsteps all morning long. She scampered excitedly across the checkered floor, making a foalish game hopping only on the darker tiles. She bounced over white speckled squares, between tables and the ponies alike, before coming to a stop in front of a glass counter housing a variety of sugary sweets. She propped herself up against the glass that separated her salivating taste buds from the cupcakes and candies and muffins within. Her oversized hat wobbled as she pushed off the glass and landed back on all fours, and began pacing back and forth, back and forth, in front of the hospital cafeteria’s confectionary.
She hopped up and down, jingling with the sound of coins, trying to see over the counter with whatever height her tiny stature would allow her. It took a few more jumps before she spotted a turquoise—and rather plump—earth pony working in the kitchen beyond the counter of sweets.
“Hey! Hey, over here!” She shouted towards the back, waving her front legs wildly at the apex of each whimsical hop. “Ya can’t just dangle these sweets here and not let me pay for ‘em!”
With each foalish leap to peek over the counter, she saw the pony look at her, turn, and walk towards the counter, each action like a still picture from a flipbook. At last, the mare on the other side of the counter peered over the line of sweets down at the sweetly smiling filly with her hat tilting haphazardly off the side of her head.
“Heh heh, well shoot, I oughta’ve known it was you, Summerset! How ya been, girl?” The hefty mare leaned further over the counter and pushed the bald filly’s hat back into place. “Haven’t seen ya ‘round here in ages—not that that’s a bad thing, mind ya.”
“I’m doing great, Miss Sweet Treat! Momma and I were here so I could get ra—“ Summerset paused, the curves of her lips leaving as she lowered her head in thought. “Ra-Ray… Radio…” Her smile returned and her hairless, hat covered head snapped back up. “That laser thingy! And Momma said if I was really good and didn’t squirm too much, then I could come and get somethin’ from the Sugar Shop here in the cafeteria, and I was reeeeally good and didn’t move a muscle! So here I am!” She paused to take a breath, while the mare behind the counter just shook her head and chuckled in hearty amusement.
“Well, little one, I’m sure I’ve got somethin’ that’ll tickle your fancy. So what’ll it be, Summerset?” She knelt down and peeked at the her from behind rows of glass and sweets.
“Hmmmmm… Mmmm-mmmm-mmmmmmm…” Summerset licked her lips in thought, tilting her head and causing her massive black top hat to nearly topple of her bald head once again. Her eyes darted between candies and cupcakes, cookies and ice cream bars, all the while squinting and peering to the next in the line of sweet tooth satisfiers. With a pensive breath and a nod, she rose her hairless head from inspection and loudly declared, “I wanna cupcake! Lotsa icing!”
“And whaddya say when asking for something?” Sweet Treat smirked down at Summerset.
“Oh! Um… I wanna cupcake with lotsa icing please!” Summerset corrected herself, eyeing a rather large pink confectionary on the bottom shelf. “And, uhh, could I have that one? Please?” she asked, pointing with a creamy yellow hoof.
“Why yes, little Miss Summerset, yes you can.” Sweet Treat took the spiraling pink cupcake in a hoof and placed it delicately inside a tiny brown paper bag. “That’ll be two bits, please.”
“Sure thing!” Summerset shook her head vigorously, causing the large hat to finally topple to the floor with a soft clinking of metal. The now completely maneless pony stuck her hairless head inside the hat and from within it retrieved a small leather pouch of golden bits, each coin a shade darker than her coat. She flipped the bag over in her hooves and two bits rolled out, shimmering under the plastic lighting above. Placing the bag back inside the hat and placing the ridiculously oversized thing upon her head once more, Summerset lifted the two golden bits up to the shopkeeper. “Trade ya!”
Another humored chuckle, and Sweet Treat hoofed over the paper bag and its sugary contents to Summerset, who was licking her lips in anticipation. In turn, the beaming filly tossed the pair of bits over the counter, not even bothering to look back and see that they had far cleared their target and landed somewhere in a vat of icing behind the glass. Sweet Treat’s gaze was caught by the spectacle. She shook her head, but by the time she turned back to see Summerset off, she was long gone, prancing and giggling and singing out the door and down the hall.
The tall wooden door creaked open, and Apple Bloom—trembling—poked her head through the crack. Soft amber eyes flicking back and forth, her gaze shifted around the room, taking in the dreary surroundings her friend was subject to.
The windowless room couldn't be larger than the inside of the Crusaders' clubhouse, and had but a single source of light in a ceiling: a short flourescent rod that stretched the space of two of the room's cheap plaster ceiling tiles. The light had a cold glow that chilled more than illuminated, similar to the blinding lights of the hallway. To Apple Bloom's right was a set of cabinets, both fitted with locks and painted a sickly shade of green. The garish colors of the cabinet contrasted with the otherwise gray wallpaper that clung to the confining walls of the hospital room, peeling, cracking, and curling along the edges and corners.
To her left, a series of thin metal hooks were suspended in the drywall, each with various bags and medical tools hanging whimsically from them. Further in the corner was a single round trash bin, constructed of cheap aluminum and missing its cap. Apple Bloom could smell the faint but familiar stench of molded, uneaten apple slices drifting from the trash can as well. Her friend had not been eating her food.
There was a rack that stood in the back corner of the tiny room. With a yellowish base and a set of bent plastic wheels, the rack seemed especially lofty to the little filly in the doorway, almost in an intimidating sense. A strange metal box was fixed to the top of the thing, an off-white cube with a flickering black screen on one end and a bundle of colorful wires coming out the other. The wires snaked their way down the rack and into a nearby socket in the wall, and the screen itself was covered in various data that Apple Bloom couldn't hope to translate. Numbers and abbreviations lined the borders of the obsidian-like face, with a few various thin lines trailing lazily through the center. One thicker line spiked every so often, and with it came a dull beep that, though especially soft, seemed to pierce through Apple Bloom’s ears and drive a spike into her brain.
The thin metal structure had suspended from it a single clear bag, half empty with a transparent liquid that trickled out the bottom of the pack and into a miniscule cylinder beneath with a maddening dripping sound. The droplets inched their way down a tube that led away from the rack, and over to the sight that caught Apple Bloom's fearful gaze.
In the center of the bleak, silent room, lay a single bed. This bed was clearly made for a full-grown pony, not somepony as young as Scootaloo. The wheels on the thing looked to be slightly larger than Apple Bloom's own head in diameter, while the bed itself was high enough that she needed to take a standing hop to confirm that it was indeed her pegasus friend that lay on it. The mattress that lay atop the base of the bed could be more aptly described as a cot: no more than a few centimeters in height, made of some sort of gray foam, and clearly not comfortable to sleep on. The thin blanket that stretched the length of the "mattress" was a soft blue, almost peaceful and relaxing if not for the pathetically tiny area it covered. It shifted up and down, weakly, inconsistently, as its occupant did nothing else to shift it for warmth.
And it's occupant was otherwise still. Scootaloo lay in the bed, unmoving, save for a few shallow breaths. Her mane, often lively and sleek, was messy and dull. Her normally vibrant orange coat was browning and pale, and a tube trailed over the thin threaded layers of the blanket and down beneath the sheet. Clear droplets of saline trickled down the rubbery pathway, hydrating the motionless pegasus. A feeding tube ran into Scootaloo's body as well, providing nutrients through a transparent solution that traveled through the tube and up Scootaloo's nose. On any other occasion, Apple Bloom would have found this to be hilarious. But this was no such occasion.
Apple Bloom blinked the moisture from her eyes, and when they opened again they held a weak resolve, but resolve nonetheless. A momentary deep breath, and Apple Bloom trotted into the room, her mind shaking off any and all sights around her but her friend. Another deep breath, a resounding sigh, and then, a whisper. "H-hey, Scoot..."
She waited for a response. Something, anything from Scootaloo to let her friend know she was there. One second. Five seconds. Ten seconds.
"Scootaloo?" she squeaked out, a little bit louder this time.
One minute, and nothing. Her friend was asleep.
Her pleading eyes closed as her expression drooped. Apple Bloom groaned at herself for not coming sooner; she'd been putting this off all day, never letting it leave the forefront of her mind as she worked up the courage to see her friend who needed her. Another sigh, softer this time. With one last glance at the sleeping Scootaloo, she lifted a hoof to leave—but stopped short of turning.
"Sheesh Apple Bloom, what kind of friend are ya?" she scolded herself under her breath. "Y'all ain't the one in the hospital, so do your part and help the pony who is!"
The farm filly flipped her drooping mane up and out of her eyes, where some resemblance of determination had taken seed. Her rosey bow rocked back and forth as she trotted a few hoofsteps closer to the bedside.
"H-Hey, Scootaloo. Sorry I haven't visited you in here before today, I've been... a l'il held up..." She paused momentarily, a brief hope flickering through her mind that her friend may wake up and respond. A few seconds of silence, and Apple Bloom let out a breath she didn't even know she'd been holding.
Nothing. Still asleep.
"I see you've got a bed with wheels," Apple Bloom spoke slowly, softly, almost as if to herself. "Maybe one of the nurses might let you ride it down the hall a few times, y'know? Like a scooter?"
A few more involuntary blinks freed a tear that had been hanging near the bottom of Apple Bloom's eye, blurring the base of her vision. It tickled her cheek as it rolled down it before sliding off her face. She caught the teardrop in the cup of her hoof, and, tilting her foreleg from side to swaying side, gently rolled the droplet around until she could no longer see it.
"Sweetie hasn't heard yet, what with bein' up in Canterlot... I just found out this mornin’, to be honest...” She bit her lip, sighed, and continued. “B-but I'll be sure to let her know, so then Sweetie can send you a letter or somethin'. Maybe even come and visit!
Another half a minute passed, and no sound was heard but Scootaloo's shallow breaths and the dull piercing tone of the machine perched on the rack. Apple Bloom shuffled in place pensively, her gaze shifting away from her friend and down to her hooves that kicked absentmindedly across the floor.
More tears freed themselves from the slipping grasp of Apple Bloom's eyelids, trailing down her face and dripping to the floor. "I... I hate seein' you here like this, Scootaloo... T'ain't natural, y'know? You're supposed to be the loud one, the pony runnin' the show... Now look at you..." She sniffed quietly as she could manage.
"Y-you gotta promise me, Scootaloo... You gotta p-promise me y—" Apple Bloom cringed, choking back a sob.
The blanket shifted and the bed squeaked. Apple Bloom didn't hear; all she could hear was her own weak sobbing. All she could feel were the tears sliding down her trembling cheeks, like a salty stream of despair. The beeping from the machine on the rack sped up ever-so-slightly, but Apple Bloom didn't notice it beneath her own whimpering pleas.
"I... I c-can't..."
"Nnnnnggghh... Wha—" Scootaloo groaned, her voice scratchy and weak. "Apple Bloom...?"
"I can't do this! I'm sorry!"
Apple Bloom's despair exploded like a pressurized bomb. Sobbing, she scrambled up to her hooves, eyes shut and ears down. Scootaloo struggled to make sense of the situation she'd just awoken to, fighting to lift a hoof beneath the tangling intravenous tube and the threads of the blue bedsheet.
"A-Apple Bloom! Wait!" the sickly filly tried to shout out from beneath a sudden fit of coughing, but it was no use. Apple Bloom sprinted madly for the door, paying no heed to advice about safety and stitches, ramming the two-way door open in a mad dash and bursting out of the room. Her cries of apology trailed behind her and drowned out her friend's brittle pleas.
The sound of hooves clattering down the hallway echoed into nothing. Scootaloo's weakly held hoof fell to the bed as confused tears sparkled to existence and fell from her eyes. Alone with nothing but abandonment and a half-hearted apology to run on, she began to draw her own conclusions. At first, it was just tears. Then, she was shaking. Then, sobbing, wailing, cursing after her friend as Apple Bloom ran from Scootaloo, just like everypony did in time.
"Some friend you are, Apple Bloom!" she screamed out the doorway, which had been left ajar. Heaving sobs strained her lungs as Scootaloo flipped herself face-first into the pillow and stained it with her grief, chest lurching with every shuddering breath.
A white hoof appeared in the doorframe, and Nurse Redheart pushed the door open with a gasp. In a moment she was gone.
Scootaloo lay in a tear stained pillow, her mane matted wet by tears and sweat, as she breathed haphazardly the vapors of her own despair. A few soft hoofsteps were heard behind her, but she paid them no attention, too absorbed in the most recent betrayal of her short life.
Suddenly, things became warm. The feeling of alien heat began to comfort her around her flanks, spreading to her still heaving chest as a pony dragged what felt like a thick heated comforter around the sobbing filly. The warmth stopped just below her neck, where a white nose nuzzled her gently before pulling the comforter up to her ears, effectively coating Scootaloo in motherly warmth.
"I'll be around if you need anything, Scootaloo," Nurse Redheart spoke softly from the doorway. Scootaloo didn't move a bit in response, but the nurse continued. "I'll be by to check on you in a little while, sweetie. If there's anything I can do for you, just ask, okay?"
Scootaloo shifted a bit, as if to nod. Nurse Redheart smiled at her from the door frame. “She’ll come around in time, Scootaloo,” she added, before reaching up and flicking off the flourescent rods in the ceiling, filling the room with a tiring darkness. The door was left barely open, a thin streak of light stretching across the bed sheet. Scootaloo squeezed a few more tears out from her eyes and rolled over in the soft embrace of the comforter.
Haunted by Apple Bloom's fleeing, Scootaloo lay weakly on her side, her wings twitching as she groaned helplessly. Her eyes shut once more, trying in vain to find peace in slumber again.
Summerset practically danced down the hallway, bounding past stone-gray walls of plaster lined with cheap decorative wallpaper, skipping as her coat shimmered under the pale glow of the fluorescent tubes that lined the ceiling above. The same melody that had trailed behind her previous canter followed her still, filling the air around her with the echoing reverberation of carefree song. Waves upon waves of her humming voice bounced between the walls of the expansive hallway, overlapping to form chords no other pony could create by themselves. The wobbling black top hat that rested upon her maneless head jingled and jangled with every step she took, adding a chorus of bell-like percussion to the one-filly symphony that cantered down the hall, a permanent beaming grin transfixed upon her face. Her prize, the spiralling pink cupcake that bounced around at the bottom of the brown paper bag that hung from her jaws, wafted a scent of sugary sweetness through the air behind her, so that her very presence painted the somber hospital halls with dreams of song and sugar.
Something grim reached her twitching ears, though it didn’t register in her mind until a few heartbeats after she had passed the source. A brief pause, and Summerset skidded to a stop on the floor, spinning and sliding as her hooves kicked up a puff of gray dust from the tiles. She tilted her head, the hat atop it swerving along with it, and raised an ear. Sitting motionless off to the side of the hallway, Summerset heard the sound of a filly crying.
She shifted, her sapphire gaze stretching over her shoulder and down the hall to the elevator doors. Her eyes twitched, glancing between backwards and forwards, help and home. An inevitable sigh, and she propped her hat back into place and traveled back in the direction she had just come from.
The source of the crying intensified ever-so-slightly as Summerset peered between signs, between doors, her shifting ears as open as her scanning eyes. Eventually she came to a stop at a tall wooden door, with the name card empty and the door slightly ajar. The crying became sobbing—shuddering, coughing sobbing—as she lifted a foreleg to lightly nudge the door open with a little kick.
Inside, Summerset saw a sickly scene play out before her. Resting atop a thin, gray bed was a sobbing mess of thick linens and dull orange fur. A dampened face lay upon the thin uncovered pillow, staining it with moisture that trailed from squinting, misty eyes. The filly under the sheets grumbled as she sniffed loudly, cursing some unintelligible name.
With a cautious measured hoofstep forward, Summerset closed the gap between herself and the base of the bed. Her squinting gaze softened at the sight of a sickly pony sobbing in bed, and she placed the brown paper bag and its contents on the floor. Struggling to clamber atop the end of the bed with her forelegs and prop herself up on the plastic cot, Summerset felt her hat tumbling down to the white tile below as she scaled higher. A moment to pause, and Summerset leaned forward and took a deep, pensive breath, as if to whisper…