“Shh shh shh! Here she comes!” whispered Flying In.
The conversation died off abruptly as Film Magic approached and took her seat with the rest of the cast at the restaurant table.
For a moment, nopony said a word. Especially not Soft Sticks. She had stayed quiet during the conversation—watching, listening—and she stayed quiet now.
“So, how was everypony’s day?” asked Film Magic.
Soft Sticks glanced around the table. Flying In had just shoved a piece of garlic bread into her mouth, every bit as uncouth as Rainbow Dash. Last Looks was levitating her now-empty fork in her magic as delicately as Rarity. Smart Slate was glancing around the table too, her gaze as methodical as Twilight Sparkle’s. Crafty and Half Apple were sitting on either side of Soft, and she didn’t want to make her discomfort obvious by turning her head that far.
Smart Slate looked back at Film Magic. “It was fine.”
“I think we’re all just tired after the shoot,” Soft Sticks offered.
Film frowned. “Yeah.” She glanced around the table.
She’s reading us. Soft Sticks forced a neutral expression onto her face. She fidgeted with her wings for a moment, then reached a hoof out to her glass of water.
Film sighed. “Listen, I can tell you’re all upset about what happened today, and—I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for anypony to get the wrong idea about that scene we did.”
Soft Sticks drank from her glass slowly as she scrambled to put together a response in her head.
“Nopony’s perfect,” squeaked Crafty, though with only half the energy of Pinkie Pie. “That’s what the show’s about. Teaching colts and fillies about friendship. Everypony makes mistakes from time to time.”
The lyrics to a Season Five song ran through Soft’s mind as she smiled weakly and fought back the urge to hum the tune.
“Everypony has a script, too,” said Flying In. “This isn’t ad lib hour. We’re supposed to be professionals.”
Soft Sticks swallowed hard.
Film picked up her knife and fork in her magic. “I know! But I did exactly what Starlight Glimmer would have done! It was in the moment and—”
“It’s not your creative vision,” said Last Looks. “It was the director’s. You and I are just—”
“We’re just actresses. I know.”
“Well then why did you—”
“I don’t know!” Film Magic dropped her gaze and let her utensils fall back down beside her plate.
Half Apple leaned forward. “We can’t help you unless we know why you did it,” she said, her tone soft but imperative, like when Applejack wanted to make a point. “If you don’t tell us why you did it, there’s a very real chance this is just going to happen again.”
Soft Sticks shifted in her seat, angling herself more towards Film. She watched as Film’s indignant features gave way to an expression of brokenness under Half Apple’s words. “You’re right. It’s just going to happen again,” she whispered.
Soft Sticks reached for her fork and knife with her wings, and took her next bite in silence.
It had been half an hour since Soft Sticks had pulled up Film’s number on her phone. Her makeup was gone, her tail extensions out, and the three butterflies on her flank had disappeared, leaving a film slate. Just one task remained as she lay there in her bed, but nothing she’d spoken into her phone had sounded good enough to send. Each time, she’d get a nice block of text, then second-guess herself and start over. Frustrated, she sighed and ran her yellow feathers through her long pink mane in preparation to try again.
“I know what everypony said about you, comma, but I don’t think you’re a bad actress. Period. We all are your friends, comma, and we all care about you. Period. Film, comma, did you really mean what you said about not renewing your contract with the show? Question mark?” She would have said more, but her voice caught in her throat. She knew what would happen now that her train of thought had stopped, and sure enough her phone beeped up at her a moment later with a prompt on the screen.
She’d been at this for half an hour and this was the best she could come up with? Forget perfect, this wasn’t even really all that good. She sighed. “Send.”
Her phone beeped again.
Her phone buzzed less than a minute later. Despite the short amount of time, a sizable amount of text now sat in front of her. Lucky unicorn.
You heard what they said. We’re supposed to be professionals. It’s not ad lib hour, it’s not my vision. And all that was in front of the guest star! Berated by the director, glared at by the crew, and unsupported by my fellow cast! Yes I’m going to be leaving the show after this season. They don’t think I’m professional enough as you know. So I’m going somewhere else. I wasted everypony’s time on set and I blew all those takes because I thought I knew what the scene needed. But nopony needed or wanted it, or me.
Soft bit her lip and nodded. Oh boy. Time wasn’t on her side here. Film could type up responses two or three times as fast as she could, even if she wasn’t trying to get every word as close to perfect as possible.
She took a moment to collect her thoughts before she began. “We don’t think that way about you. Period. I was there in the restaurant, comma, and though I didn’t say much I heard everything. Period. They’re really just shocked that you did it. Period. They don’t understand. Period.” Her phone beeped again. “Send.”
She pulled the covers up to her neck and put her phone on the nightstand. It vibrated no sooner than she had set it down. She reached back over and picked it up.
I broke the chain of command! I wasted everypony’s time on set, I snubbed my muzzle at the director’s vision, and now none of my co-stars want to even be on set with me! There’s no coming back from that. If it weren’t for my contract, I wouldn’t even have a job now. I figure I’ll save the studio the paperwork and just not renew my contract.
Soft Sticks rubbed her face with her hooves and groaned deeply as she mulled over the reply in her head. She tossed her head side to side for a few minutes as she pieced the varied thoughts together. Then, she held up her phone again.
“Film, comma, I know you have a passion for this show. Period. You truly believe the message we’re putting in this show for all the colts and fillies, comma, and it shows. Period. You’ve seen all the excited colts and fillies and families and even adult fans who attend the conventions, comma, who can’t get enough of this show and who’ve had their lives changed by it. Period. I’ve seen that same change in my own life and I know from the passion you put into what you do every day that you must see it in yours. Period. The way you talk shows you really believe what you’re saying when you get behind the camera as Starlight Glimmer. Period.” She paused and took a breath, then looked over what she’d written.
She tapped the screen with a hoof and added one more sentence. “I want you to know that whatever happens with this situation I’m still your friend, comma, and that won’t change no matter what. Period.”
She wanted to let herself fall asleep. Sleep called to her, and her alarm by her bed shone bright red numbers at her. Five more minutes, she thought to herself.
Four minutes passed until she got a reply. The length of time made her worried she’d have a novella to respond to, but there were only a few words.
No matter what?
Soft smiled as she felt a sense of relief wash over her. “No matter what” she said. She blinked away tears as she tapped the send button with a hoof.
Soft Sticks shifted her weight among her hooves as she stood in the Ponyville street set. The morning sun warmed her coat and wings as she rehearsed her first line in her head one last time. She glanced over at Film Magic, and for a moment wondered if she would stick to her lines.
For just a moment, Soft Sticks wondered if Film was going to botch the scene again. She mentally scolded herself for even thinking it. This couldn’t be “just a scene.” She couldn’t be Soft Sticks. She had to be Fluttershy, in Equestria, talking to Starlight Glimmer. Anything else, and she might get out of character and botch the scene. And more importantly, she had to trust her fellow actress.
“Scene 9C, Take 1.”
Here we go. Yay.
They started walking down the street.
“I’m just not sure,” said Fluttershy. “You know how much baking means to Pinkie Pie, and she’s really made up her mind about the Appleoosa Bake-Off.”
“I know. But the rest of us are all so busy with our jobs here in Ponyville. I know how disappointing it would be for her to have to go alone.” Starlight turned her head and stared off to the side of the camera. “So far away from all her friends.”
“Well, I talked with her this morning, and I think she’ll be ok with going alone but…” she bit her lip.
Then, she stopped.
Oh no! That’s not our blocking! We’re supposed to keep going! Soft Sticks had no choice but to stand there, or else start walking again and look awkward. Luckily Film Magic stopped a step ahead of her.
“...but I’m terrified! I’m terrified that if I go behind her back and tell her Applejack actually does need her new pie flavors, she’ll be upset because she told me not to say anything to Applejack! And I’m afraid if I let her go to Appleoosa with a terrible-tasting pie, she’ll be upset there too!” At the end of her line, Fluttershy broke down crying. That wasn’t in the script either.
Starlight approached and stood next to her at an angle, forming a V which pointed toward the camera. Then she placed a hoof on Fluttershy’s shoulder. “I may not have known Pinkie Pie as long as you have, but I do have Twilight’s journal. If your friends are going through something, you should help them. I know Pinkie and Applejack had a falling out, but they’re still friends. Pinkie gave Applejack one of her new pies, and because of that she thinks Applejack doesn’t want any of her pies. She’s taking her pies to Appleoosa because she’s trying to protect herself from being rejected again.”
Fluttershy sniffed. “So I should go behind her back and tell Pinkie Pie anyways?”
Starlight smiled. “I think you should. After all, Applejack doesn’t hate Pinkie Pie over a pie! That’d just be silly!”
“Even if it was pineapple and jalapeno?”
“There’s nothing more disgusting than pineapple and jalapeno, but there’s nothing better than a friend.”
Fluttershy threw her forelegs around a thoroughly unprepared Starlight Glimmer. “Oh, thank you, Starlight!” she said as she felt a fresh wave of emotion wash over her. “Thank you so much.”
“Glad—I could help,” Starlight choked out.
“Aaand cut. Good scene,” called the director.
Soft Sticks didn’t let go. “Thank you, Film. Thank you.”
“I—You’re welcome? I don’t understand.”
Soft Sticks watched as Film Magic walked down the street from the studio towards her apartment. “Well, there she goes,” said Half Apple. She kicked a pebble off the sidewalk into the street. “She sure was eager to get out of here.”
“She’s on the call sheet for tomorrow,” Soft said. “Do you think she’ll show up or call in?”
“I don’t know. She seemed real tense today. Quiet too. Almost... guarded.”
“I just can’t help but feel for her. I heard her crying in the bathroom yesterday after she got yelled at.”
“She may want to go ahead and take a day off after what’s happened. I don’t know. Might help her.”
Soft turned towards Half Apple. “Unless she’s too busy thinking about what she did. Alone at home with no friends and nothing to do.”
Half turned her head a moment later. “No, I mean… she’s had a rough couple of days. I hope she gets a little break to get back on her hooves. I really do.”
“I do too.”
Soft Sticks heard somepony walk up beside her. “She’s already gone? Wow.” She turned to see Smart Slate standing staring off at Film Magic. “I kind of wanted to talk with her. I called her last night, too. Tried to get her to rethink. I’m not sure it did much.”
“I texted her,” said Soft.
“She thinks because we didn’t say anything that we hate her,” Smart Slate continued.
“You know she’s not been well lately,” said Half Apple. “I’m sure that’s not helping her work through her difficulties right now.”
Soft nodded slowly, her eyes fixed on Film. She knew the condition Half Apple was describing. That smothering cloud that she’d felt before creeping into her own life. She knew the old battles she’d fought and won, and how fragile they sometimes felt at times as she found herself picking at old scars.
“Her… depression?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Half Apple said.
“Depression is the worst,” said Crafty as she approached from behind.
Just the pony I wanted to see.
Soft Sticks stepped forward and turned around. “Ok, hear me out. You know the episode we’ve been shooting this week?”
“You mean ‘Bake It till Ya Make It’?” asked Crafty.
“What does Pinkie Pie do for Applejack?”
“She bakes her a pineapple jalapeno pie,” Crafty said with a shudder. “Except I hate pineapples and jalapenos.”
She turned to Half Apple. “And how does Applejack react?”
Half Apple chortled. “Like any pony with half a sense of taste would.”
“And then what does Pinkie Pie do?”
"Her character regresses all the way to Season One 'Party of One,'" she said, rolling her eyes.
"No! What does she do?"
"She decides to leave," said Smart Slate. "Soft Sticks, what are you getting at?"
"She wants us to make up with Film Magic," Half Apple said.
"But we already tried," said Smart Slate.
"And she still wants to leave because she still thinks we hate her, which we don't."
"So," Soft continued, "we do what Fluttershy did."
Smart raised an eyebrow. "We… go behind her back? Tell her we're giving her some time, then throw her a surprise party like our characters all do for Pinkie in the episode?"
"Hey, it worked in Season One," said Crafty.
Soft snorted and stomped a hoof. "We remind her she's our friend!" She began pacing in front of them. "You know how each episode is. We've been doing this almost a decade. It's formulaic at this point! Everypony ignores the obvious solution to the episode's problem so the drama can reach its climax, even though it could have been avoided if the characters would have just communicated."
Somepony snorted from beside the building. "You think it'll be that easy?" asked Flying In. "You think life's problems resolve themselves in twenty-two minutes like they're some kind of 'friendship problem' in a show for little fillies?" she said, making air quotes with her sky-blue feathers. "She'll come back to work with us in a season or two, if she comes back at all. Nothing more we can do about it." She turned and began to fly away.
Soft Sticks laid her ears against her head. "So then why are you teaching little fillies things like in the show if you don't believe them in real life? You think those lessons stay with Rainbow Dash on a film set called Equestria?"
Flying In stopped and turned halfway around. "Because it's a good business model to teach colts and fillies good morals in a story."
Soft's wings shot out to the side as tears came to her eyes. "I refuse to believe that!" she said. "I know this show isn't that shallow and I know Film thinks the same way! I've learned so much about myself from this stupid, silly fillies' show. I've grown. I've become a better pony. I know there's more here than a business model. You haven't even talked to her since then, have you?"
Flying In didn't say a word. She hovered there a moment longer, lowered her head, and flew away. It was answer enough for Soft. She shook her head and turned around. “I know how much this show means to Film Magic. I see it in her acting. She lives this show. If you believe in this show and what it stands for, will you help me?”
“We’re with you,” said Smart Slate. “But we’ve already talked to her individually, and her mind seems set.”
“That’s ok. I have an idea.”
Soft Sticks settled into her folding metal chair across from Film Magic at the cast lunch table. She caught Smart Slate’s eye, then Half Apple’s, then finally Crafty’s. All three were already glancing among themselves. Then, Soft turned her body to face Film Magic and flicked her ear back twice—her friends’ signal.
“I can’t even pretend to like my own prop in my own scene,” Crafty said to Film Magic next to her. “Every time I touch that pie, my stomach turns inside out.”
"I mean, I'd try a pineapple jalapeño pie," said Film Magic.
Everypony stared. "That's disgusting," said Flying In.
“Sickening. Revolting,” said Last Looks.
“Are they actually going to make you take a bite of it?” asked Smart Slate
“I don’t think it’s actually pineapples and jalapenos,” said Film Magic. “It’s all just pretend while we’re on stage. It’s all fake.”
Soft Sticks glanced around the table. “Actually, about that,” she began. “I’ve learned a lot about real life from something that’s ‘just pretend.’”
“I know what you mean,” said Film Magic. “I’m with you about the morals we have for the fillies, but you know not all the props are real. We don’t really have a draconequus here. That’s just a puppet with motion capture technology.”
“I think Soft Sticks speaks for all of us when she says she’s learned a lot about herself because of the show,” said Smart Slate as she leaned forward onto the table. She stared first at Flying In, then at Film Magic.
“What do you mean?”
Soft Sticks felt reluctance building in her as her mind raced to put her thoughts in order. “We… wanted to ask your forgiveness for how we acted the other day following your… mishap.”
Film raised her hooves to her face. “Not this again.”
“Yes this again,” said Half Apple. “Because we want to be your friend, and we want you on set with us for next season.”
“Nopony likes pineapple jalapeno pies,” Crafty said. “Well, nopony except Pinkie Pie. But nopony real. You wouldn’t say Pinkie’s a bad baker because she made one bad pie, just like we wouldn’t say you’re a bad actress because you—”
“—stole everypony’s time and made a foal of myself in front of the director, the special guest, the crew, and all of you.”
“Well, I was going to say ‘improv'ed a scene.’”
“What’s good for one director isn’t necessarily good for another,” said Half Apple. “All directors are ok with a little improv. Some are ok with a lot.”
“What about when I blew my blocking for our scene yesterday?” asked Soft Sticks. “Final Cut loved that scene.”
Film Magic sat there blinking.
“And what about the actual message of that episode?”
Film rolled her eyes. “You should go behind your friends’ back if they’re making a bad decision?”
Soft Sticks reached across the table and took Film’s hoof in her own. “Because you care about them, and you don’t want them to make the wrong choice in the heat of the moment.”
Film looked down at her hoof, then up at Soft Sticks, mouth agape. “You mean, this whole conversation, you’ve been—with the pie and—”
“We’re asking you to let us help you. I know how invested you are in this show. What are you really planning after you leave at the end of the season?”
“Well, my agent could probably find something.”
“Film, listen to your tone,” Smart pleaded. “You barely believe yourself.”
“I know you’ve learned a lot about yourself here on this show,” said Soft Sticks. “Do you really think it’s just a silly fillies’ show, or something real?”
Soft watched as Film’s eyes watered, then her lip trembled, then her head fell onto the back of her front leg.
“We’re your friends, Film Magic.”
“All of us are,” Smart Slate said, placing her hoof on top of Soft’s. Half Apple was next, then Crafty then Last Looks, and even Flying In.
“Thank you, girls,” Film said through her tears. “Thank you.”
Film Magic looked over the letter of resignation she had written. Just yesterday, she was able to let her heart flow like water into phone calls and text messages about how badly she wanted out of the show. In between messaging her fellow cast members—her friends—she had gone over her contract line by line with her agent, looking for an early way out. Now, she found herself pulling up his number in her contacts once again. Her magic grip on her phone was weak, as though it could give out at any time.
She “tapped” the screen with her magic and raised the phone to her ear. Her agent picked up on the second ring.
“Hey, Film. What’s up?”
“You can stop looking now. I’m staying.”