Rock Note swiftly flew into Paper Pen's apartment, a wide smile plastered across the pegasus' face. Pen was lied down on his couch, a bottle of cider in his hoof.
"Pen, holy bits, Pen, you'll never believe what happened!" The joyful stallion began.
"Shining Armor decided to ditch Cadance and is looking for a booksmart stallion?" Pen guessed.
"Buck… worth a shot. So, what's up?"
"Some playwright hired me to make music!" The stallion gleefully explained, "I'm gonna get to do the backing for a play!"
"Hey, that's awesome!" Pen cheered for his friend, "Give me, like, all the details!" Pen sat up, allowing his friend to crash on the couch. Note did so and grabbed the bottle of cider with his wing, taking a nice long swig of the drink.
"So, I was at the coffee shop this morning playing guitar, y'know, that song I wrote about Luna's butt," Note began.
"One of your best works, that riff right before the chorus… perfect."
"Yeah, it's awesome! So, I'm playing that outside 'cause the owner threw me out and this mare, pink-ish red coat, pink-ish purple mane, she comes up to me and starts asking me if I'm available for hire." Note took another swig of the cider, recoiling slightly at the strength of the drink. Pen chugged the bottle next, downing it as if water. "And I was still super high so I almost went on a rant about 'real music' or something, but then she said I'd get two thousand bits and all I had to do was perform the backing music, I can even improvise on the melody!"
"That's amazing! What's the production?" Pen inquired.
"She's calling it 'The Tragedy of Queen Chrysalis', it's about love and ponies getting stabbed!"
"And more importantly awesome music!" Pen hyped up his friend. There was something he loved about seeing his best friend in that happily obsessed state of his biggest passion. "So, who's the playwright? I might know her."
"It's uh… Centennial? Centipede? Something starting with 'cent'..."
"Center Stage?" Pen grimaced.
"Yeah, Center Stage, that's it! That name ring a bell?" Note asked.
"Less of a bell and more of a warning siren…" Pen sighed and rolled his eyes, "We were in the same creative writing class back in school, she's a talentless self-important hack who only writes unimaginable garbage and has zero regard for the medium itself! ...and also she stole my soda at lunch once, I know it was her, I saw her take it, and the teacher never believed me!"
"Maybe she's changed since then?" Note suggested, "Her cutie mark is related to drama, so she must be doing something right!"
"Yes, she is a vile creature that feeds upon drama like a vampony sucking blood from a victim's neck, some vile abomination cast from the pits of Tartarus specifically to punish the self respecting artists of these lands!" Pen monologued, "Lovely be thy manticore next to the gorgon Center Stage!"
"So… I take it you don't want me to do it?" Note questioned with a sigh, "You're my friend, Pen, if this really makes you uncomfortable I'm fine ditching it."
"What? No, oh Celestia no!" Pen immediately answered, "You getting paid means she has less money… also, your music could be the only thing between death at the hooves of disgust and anypony unlucky enough to see something both written and directed by that wannabe poser."
"Okay, cool!" Note again smiled, "Hey, could you do me a favor though?"
"Aye, brother!" Pen answered, immediately shaking his head like a wet dog, "Buck, sorry, I'm still thinking in Shakesmarian… but yeah, totally, what do you need?"
"Well, me and her were talking, right, and she said she needed two more parts filled, Celestia and some prince… I was wondering if you could try out for him 'cause the faster production starts the faster they start to sell tickets, and y'know, the faster I get paid." Note proposed, "Like, I get you might not want to do it on account of… well, hating her, but I kinda need those bits as soon as ponily possible."
"I don't know, Note, I'm not much of an actor." Pen reasoned.
"C'mon, acting is just like lying, you're great at lying!" Note encouraged, "Remember that time you convinced security you were Rarity's brother and got us into that Parasprite concert? Besides, the prince is just a side character with barely any lines, it'll be easy!"
"Well, I do play the part of a rich entitled jerk pretty well… and I have gotten away with a good deal of identity theft…" Pen considered, "Ah, buck it, I can handle being around her long enough, I mean, buck, I might even get to take her money!"
"You mean get paid?"
"Sure, one way or another."
The very next day Pen accompanied his friend to meet Center Stage in her apartment at a building in the nicer part of Manehattan, everything about the place was better than Pen's, even the stairwells seemed beautiful in comparison to the ones at his place. Truthfully Pen had kept up with her work, seeing a few productions put on by the playwright just to make sure he still hated it; they typically bore the genius direction, stagecraft, and casting of a perfectionist, even limited budgets never stopped her from making her art absolutely beautiful… where he found issue, however, was the writing itself. It was a shame, really, he'd probably enjoy her productions if he wasn't so obsessed with picking apart her mistakes.
Finally the pair came to Center Stage's apartment, Note practically bashed the door down with three knocks.
"Yo, it's the guitar pony!" Note identified himself through the door.
"Hey, just let yourself in!" The playwright instructed.
Note and Pen did just that and trotted inside. At first the mare smiled upon seeing Note, but a death-stare of pure hatred came to her face when spotting Pen.
"Sir, are you aware a drunken homeless pony followed you?" Center Stage asked Note, not taking her eyes off Pen.
"Yup. But Pen isn't homeless." Note innocently corrected.
"Then perhaps this leering figure is some hollow and lifeless cadaver that continues to walk? Not by supernatural means, of course, but simply in persisting past the point of meaning?" Center Stage approached Pen, her voice getting purposely more thorough and meticulous with a heavy inflection of sternness.
"Naturally," Pen rolled his eyes and switched to a tone of sarcasm, also affecting his inflection to match hers, "A shambling corpse is far too inventive, far too interesting to be put to pen by the likes of a novice such as yourself. How immense the effort would be to simply imagine such a concept as the undead, no, it is only realistic that one should expect you to work amongst the most base concepts!"
"What… what are you guys talking about?" Note asked, rightfully confused.
"Just some friendly writers banter!" Center Stage brushed off the interaction with a fake calming joy, "You know how artists are!"
"I'd hesitate to call you an art-" Pen caught his tongue, choosing not to spit another insult.
"What was that, hun?" Center Stage asked, still in that fake happy tone. She was daring him, just waiting for the stallion to light the fuse of this powder keg and metaphorically kill them both in a fiery argumentative explosion.
"Nothing." Pen showed restraint for once, immediately quelling the terrible feeling with a long swig of cider from his flask, "I said nothing."
"So… why exactly are you here?" Center Stage questioned.
"Note convinced me to audition for the role of some prince, y'know, to get this whole thing over with." Pen shrugged.
Her casting Pen? Center Stage knew him to be a delusional drunk but this was just absurd. Why in the name of Celestia would she ever so much as consider letting the likes of him into her perfect play? Regardless, she'd already found a much more suitable stallion for the role the night before.
Even so, Center Stage figured it might be fun to watch her rival embarrass himself.
"Amazing, I'd love to see what you can do with the role!" Center stage handed Pen a copy of the script opened to one of the prince's lines.
"Is that an invitation to rewrite it?" Pen said sarcastically, careful to frame the insult as a joke. He carefully inspected the script before reading, "You used the wrong form of 'your' here-" Pen moved to show the director her mistake.
"Just read the script, please."
Pen cleared his throat and closed his eyes, mentally preparing for the part. When lying he always focused on the subtleties of the act, tiny details made more of an impact than actual content.
"Be there stars in the night sky to describe your beauty? Nay, Luna herself shant gaze upon a star more magnificent than you!" Pen delivered his lines with a posh and distinguished accent, a perfect imitation of royal speech, "Oh, my dear Duchess Chryssa, your eyes stare into my very soul, dost thou enjoy the sight?"
Center Stage was in shock. Somehow Pen, the pony who she'd seen slur words over cider to the point of forgetting Ponish, had expressed the prince exactly as she'd envisioned the character. He was amazing, shockingly so. Of course, she didn't dream of saying that.
"I suppose that was alright enough, though I was hoping to find somepony who looked more like a stallion to play the prince…" Center Stage criticized. Obviously she couldn't give Pen the prince's role as it had already been filled, but that royal impersonation could still be used, she still needed a Celestia. When writing the script Center Stage had failed to account for the fact that most ponies were unwilling to play the solar princess, some found the role too strange for a normal pony and others thought it downright disrespectful, but Pen? Well, he was as strange and disrespectful as they came.
"Thank you… I think?" Pen responded.
"Oh!" Center Stage faked an idea coming to mind, "Say, how about Celestia, she has more lines being a maine character and all, but I'll pay you the same as the role of the prince!"
"Celestia?" Pen bore a confused look, "I think there might be a bit of an issue there…"
"I suppose you're right," Center Stage sighed, "Besides, I'm sure you wouldn't look good in a dress anyways."
"For your information, I look better than most mares in a dress!" Pen defended in offense.
And he'd fallen right into the playwright's trap. Center Stage was couldn't help but feel immense pride in such a seamless employment of reverse psychology.
In the coming weeks rehearsals began and Pen committed himself to showing off his acting prowess and sticking it to Center Stage, he really thought she'd feel like such a fool for ever underestimating him. On the three nights the play ran Pen wholly committed himself to the role, even getting a standing ovation from the audience on opening day.
Finally, at the end of the third night's performance, Pen was able to confront Center Stage. Still dressed as Celestia, and alongside his best friend Note, Pen waltzed up to Center Stage ready to finally see her lose.
"Y'know, I barely even had to try." Pen lied through a smug smile directed at the playwright, "Granted, I would have had a harder time had you written a better script, but hey, I guess it was nice being able to shut my brain off and play a poorly written one dimensional character!"
Center Stage looked at Pen, mirroring his grin. Where he expected hurt in her eyes or at the very least an offended scoff, he only saw the mare laughing in his face.
"What?" Pen asked in confused offense, "I'm insulting you, why are you laughing?!"
"I can't believe I actually got you to do that!" Center Stage continued to laugh in the stallions face.
"If you're talking about the dress, I look amazing and you know it!"
"No, not the dress," Center Stage finally calmed down enough to talk, "Celestia is a main character, and you played her for the same rate as a side character!"
"But… but you said it paid the same as the prince role…"
"No no no!" Center Stage chuckled, putting a hoof to Pen's chest, "All I said was I'd pay you the same as the prince role!"
"You… you tricked me." Pen admitted in defeat, "You won… you actually won."
"What can I say? For how smart you think you are, you're really easy to manipulate!" Center Stage taunted the bested unicorn, "Hey, if it's any consolation, you do look better than me in a dress!"
Pen took a deep sigh and hung his head in frustration. In retrospect, delivering a star performance at a low cost for somepony he deeply hated didn't actually seem to be revenge at all.
"This isn't over!" Pen grumbled.
The unicorn stomped away in anger, his friend following close after. All the while Center Stage's cackling continued, growing quieter as a much needed distance was created between them.
"Hey, dude, you good?" Note asked Pen, "That was super harsh of her!"
"Yeah, well, what did I tell ya'? She's horrible." Pen sighed, "Hey, at least she bought us drinks!"
"What? No she didn't."
Pen stopped and reached under the skirt of his dress, looking for something. After a moment the unicorn brought up a red purse with the letters 'C' and 'S' embroidered on the front.
"Well, she kinda did, one way or another," Pen smiled again, "C'mon, let's get smashed!"