• Published 5th May 2013
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Triptych - Estee


When a new mission for the Element-Bearers (from an unexpected source) arrives three weeks after Twilight's ascension, she finds herself forced to confront a pair of questions: what truly makes an alicorn? And what happens if it goes wrong?

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Plinth

She held as still as she could while the soft blue glow carefully moved across her face, and did everything possible to avoid focusing her gaze on the mirror which was just barely visible beyond Rarity's left flank.

In so many ways, avoiding focus should have been easy, at least when it came to the mental sort: the moon which had passed since Twilight's change had been filled with any number of reasons which kept her from dedicating all available internal resources to pretty much anything. But this was the visual variety, and that was presenting some challenges. She couldn't focus on the glow because doing so would mean scrunching her face in such a way as to create a near-silent grumble from Rarity as the designer began to rework that entire area again, not to mention the minor anatomical problems involved in truly trying to regard her own upper eyelids. For the same reason, Twilight couldn't really look around the room either, even with so many things calling for her attention. They were all getting dressed in Rarity's assigned quarters -- or nearly all, as Spike had muttered something about not wanting to intrude on the partial nudity of mares who typically didn't wear anything again before heading into the bathroom -- and based on the audio cues, that provided a variety of things she could look at. For starters, the series of little whimpers steadily emerging from one corner was telling her exactly how much of Fluttershy's amazingly full tail had been exposed by the newest of designs: all of it.

She couldn't look at anything because to do so would interrupt Rarity's silent artistry. (She was certain the others had noticed the unnatural silence.) But the mirror was right there. Checking her reflection wouldn't even require any real neck or facial movements. She just had to focus her eyes just so...

...but she didn't.

Twilight didn't spend a lot of time looking in mirrors. In the days before Ponyville, there had been basic grooming requirements, especially if she was about to have a lesson with the Princess or could be reasonably sure of spotting a scarce patron within the Ancient History department: she would perform the standard routine and move on -- with the perpetual understanding that if she had a few days off for experimenting out of everypony's sight, said standard routine could and probably would go hang. After she'd settled into the library... well, there were still basic grooming requirements to look after, and being dirty around one friend was the best way to bring on an emergency spa visit. But it was as Rarity had said: Twilight generally didn't wear makeup. Part of that was because she'd never really learned how to put the stuff on: not only was applying subtle shading and fur highlights an art form all its own, but even a unicorn working that mostly-thaumless magic in front of a mirror had to account for the reversed image before considering exactly how all of those careful movements should proceed. It was a skill, and Twilight acknowledged that, but -- there were more important things to learn. And besides -- she knew what she looked like.

She was (too) small and (too) slender, thin in a way which could readily tip into emaciated if she fell into a two-week research gallop when there was nopony around to keep an eye on her nutrition, or to make sure she ate at all. Her snout wasn't bad and she supposed there were far worse ear shapes to have, but the totality of her features really didn't seem to be anything special and her mane had been originally cut into something which wouldn't take a lot of work to maintain (and in the darkest days, she'd considered shaving down to stubble, because it would keep stray hairs out of her beakers and besides, it wasn't as if anypony was truly looking at her). Even in her Ponyville days, she'd never really experimented with new styles because underneath any success at curl and dip would be her, with a tail that really wasn't particularly interesting, hindquarters which struck her as appealing to a rather narrow segment of the population (and she was this close to outright banning Mr. Waddle from the library), and there were so many ponies who had her exact fur color...

On her best days, Twilight considered herself to be average: on the worst, somepony so average that no amount of help would ever change that status. The mostly-faked pinup calendars of the Bearers were, for two moons out of thirteen, a bad joke. Everypony among her friends was more attractive than she, and Twilight -- accepted that. She was average, and the opinions of those who insisted on anything else were either being spoken by those with some extremely specific requirements (and seriously, if she caught the senior lurking behind the shelves to the rear of her checkout desk one more time), ponies who were outright lying to her snout, or friends trying to reassure her while boosting her confidence under an uplifting stream of completely false pretenses.

She was average. That was what she told herself. Who would be in a better position to know? And in the time between arriving in Ponyville and her change, she hadn't spent a lot of time looking in mirrors, because there wasn't anything particularly notable looking back.

But after the wings had come...

"And finished," Rarity quietly said. "I believe we are ready. Or nearly so." With a slight increase in volume, "Spike?"

From the bathroom, there was a mutter of "...ties... what kind of sapient came up with ties...?"

"Fashionable Noose," Rarity automatically replied. "A pony designer of some repute."

Through the door. "Oh." A long pause -- then, with the air of a dragon looking for somepony to take the tightness around his neck out on, "Is that pony still alive?"

"No."

More muttering, all of which seemed to have a freshly-added frustration to it.

"Check yourselves over," Rarity told the others. "This is the time for last-second adjustments, and seconds may be all we have."

Rainbow uncomfortably wriggled inside her dress. "My hock lines are tight."

"Yes," Rarity darkly stated. "I wonder why. Perhaps your dress suffered a degree of shrinkage following an unexpected drenching. Anypony else?"

"...um..."

"Fluttershy, our host has sacrificed -- perhaps without his full knowledge, but I have compensated him for his replacement costs -- a perfectly lovely set of curtains so that you would be at your best tonight. The green is beautiful against your fur. It suggests leaves. It offers the hues of the deep forest. It tells everypony that a representative of nature trots among them."

"...but my tail..."

"Yes," Rarity placidly observed. "Your tail. Should somepony once again openly suggest to you that for some incomprehensible reason, their lives cannot be complete until you have your tail docked, please let me know so that I may conduct a scientific experiment -- Twilight, I will need your help in quantifying the final result, as I may lose track of exactly how many kicks it requires to send somepony to Moon -- and while that is happening, I suggest that you swish your tail in that pony's general ascending direction. Because when it comes to not allowing others to dictate how one's natural form should appear, there is no such thing as causing too much offense. Anypony else?"

"Ah don't think this is finished," Applejack risked. "I mean, I've got everything on and it ain't like anything's peeking out which shouldn't be, but it feels like something's missing..."

"How insightful!" the designer brightly said. "I was wondering if you would notice that! Truly, your increasing perception into the world of fashion is a source of personal pride for me. Additionally, I suppose the mark switch had some small benefit for you after all... But do not worry, Applejack: your issue can be fixed within a moment!"

Cautiously, "And -- what exactly is that issue?"

"Oh, it's a simple thing, really. It's practically instinct for me now or at least, a rather automatic sort of habit..." Rarity smiled, and the elaborate purple mane was given a light, flouncing toss. "You see, unlike what Rainbow is currently insisting on doing despite all my advice to the contrary, I naturally designed your piece to work with a hat."

Twelve seconds of Tartarus-freed silence passed, with every last one dragging broken chains behind them.

"Rarity?"

"Yes, Applejack?"

"If one of us ever went evil, it's probably going to be you. Y'know that."

No response.

"I ain't sure you're not there already."

The designer favored that suggestion with a rather expressive shrug.

"I'm not ready yet," Applejack stated. "Nowhere near." And fixed green eyes upon blue.

Five seconds. Ten. Fifteen...

"Very well," Rarity replied. "Still -- habit. Twilight? Would you do me the favor of examining your makeup in the mirror? If you perceive any adjustments required in the name of reflecting well upon our host, this would be the time to tell me."

"I'm sure it's fine," Twilight automatically said.

With a nod towards the mirror, "And yet you should look."

And with no way out of it, Twilight looked.

The dress was... well, in truth, there were times when Twilight still had trouble appreciating Rarity's artistry. The librarian could catalog an art collection, happily note creator and year, research to see if there were any particular Periods in play, perhaps consult a helpful biography or three on the side -- and still might wind up more interested in the chemical composition of the paint than the image it had rendered. But this time...

She had never realized grey could be iridescent.

The fabric only caressed her form in a few places, billowed around others. Every movement produced a new shimmer of highlights: nothing ostentatious, just a gentle reminder that shimmer was possible. There would never be too many points of shine: just little twinkles appearing and fading out with each breath.

The dress was stars in the last moments of dusk.

But not all of the temporary constellations could be seen, for too many were blocked by feathers.

It was Twilight's first dress since the coronation and at that time, there had been too many other things for thinking about. But now, with a moon having passed and every memory of all the other times Rarity had instructed her to check a mirror before they all went out echoing in her mind... now, her eyes went to the reflection of wings, for Rarity had needed to assist her in getting them through the appropriate slits, Rainbow and Fluttershy wound up checking on (and correcting) her preening...

She wanted to look her best for Quiet

because it reflects on our host, we all have to

for whatever her best was. But Twilight didn't look in mirrors very much.

"It's fine, Rarity," she quietly said. "Everything's fine."

Her features were her features, and she would insist on her averageness in the face of all evidence. She was accustomed to all of that.

But the reflection no longer matched the pony.


[/hr]

They were making their way to the main hall. The buzz of the party had already come for them.

There had been something of a tour on the first day, and so Twilight had a decent memory of the hosting area. There was a section of the castle which lay (and almost lurked) just past the main entrance. It was a two-level hollow within the main structure which had a hallway circling the entire thing one floor up, allowing ponies to look down through curved openings and regard whatever activity might wait below. Two grand ramps waited on the left and right, allowing descent to what, at the time of their arrival, had mostly been a repository for excess furniture. But part of the activity leading up to the party had been intended to clear that space out, and Twilight could easily picture it accommodating a rather large number of ponies. She just hadn't had any chance to see it occupied by anything other than wood, and was already starting to wonder if the inanimate would turn out to be an improvement.

Softtread had told them the basics regarding their arrival, providing a quick-but-thorough briefing on what would happen. The bulk of the crowd had already arrived, but for those for whom lateness was eternally in procrastinating fashion. They would be introduced in turn: Twilight would go last. There would be titles. One by one, they would descend until they were among the masses. And after that, there would be a party of some form, one where apple bobbing would have been banished and giggling would be at a premium.

Twilight tried not to sigh.

It's for Quiet. It's our last night here. I -- we have to all get through this for him --

-- the raindrops pelted against the glass like a barrage of pebbles being field-tossed up to gather attention, and like most of those little notice-seeking missiles, they hit far harder than the ideal. There was a rapid-fire chorus of impact, just before the wind which had accelerated every drop reached the pane, making it vibrate within the frame.

They all looked, saw sky gone to black -- and then a yellow-white streak went through the fast-approaching night, imprinted itself on every retina until multiple hard blinks brought the rest of the world back.

"...it's a big one," Fluttershy softly stated.

Rainbow softly whistled. "I was watching the local team setting some of it up. They're making up for a extended dry period -- some kind of outdoor concert series. The pegasi around here are good." More quickly, "Not me good. Decent good. But still good."

"What are they using for drying devices in the entrance?" Twilight asked Softtread.

"A rented desaturator," the servant smoothly replied.

Which produced a wince. "And..."

"Our guests trot up a miniature, rather temporary and decidedly porous ramp," Softtread answered the unspoken question. "The tubs are below."

Twilight nodded. Desaturators worked by magically forcing all exterior water to separate from the absorbing surface, effectively producing instant drying of fur and clothing. It also left that water hanging in midair for a split-second before it all crashed to the floor and the splash almost inevitably forced the device to start working again, over and over until the charge ran out or the resulting rivers had run past the working's range. (Hot air blowers were much slower and considerably less efficient, but also didn't require the same amount of cleanup.) "And they're running normally?"

"Nopony has reported symptoms of dehydration thus far. Although any number are following their own introductions with an immediate trip to the bar, perhaps under the delusion that alcohol will replace any lost fluids." A tiny sniff. "It, of course, does not. Oh, yes -- Lord Presence had a last-minute question. Regarding alcohol: do any of you drink? I ask so that I can save your favorite vintages before the gathering empties every bottle."

Spike's mouth began to open --

"I don't," Twilight quickly said, "and you don't either."

The little dragon glared at her.

"Yes," Pinkie smiled. "But not too much." Which, for the pony with the highest tolerance in the group, could mean just about any quantity at all. "And I'm not fussy."

"Slightly," confessed the designer, who had never reached a fifth consecutive mug in her life. "But I am certain that whatever has been provided will more than suffice."

"Not when I'm flying," Rainbow stated, and adjusted the position of her Daring Do hat again: the darkness of the storm-ridden sky had made the nearest windowpane into a decent substitute mirror.

"...we're going to be inside all night," Fluttershy softly reminded her.

"It's a two-level hollow! I've got enough room for some of the basics! And if I start at the far end -- oh, I can show them some stuff once I get a little acceleration going...!"

The caretaker quietly sighed. "...nothing for me."

"Just hard cider now and again," Applejack shrugged. "You probably don't stock it."

"Not at the bar," the servant replied. "But I shall check the cellar. Very well. We will be visible just after this turn, and then the ceremony, such as it is, shall begin. Do not worry -- it will be kept short. An introduction of the group, then each individual, by their full title." (Twilight automatically winced.) "If you would please go into the designated order?" The procession shuffled. "A few more hoofsteps..."

"You look good," Twilight half-whispered to Rarity as they passed each other, with the former heading towards the absolute back. "I didn't get a chance to say it earlier."

A welcome half-smile formed part of the answer, and "Thank you," made up the rest.

With a full smile, "Maybe you'll get lucky and meet a decent stallion this time."

"Given my luck at the majority of our previous gatherings on this social level," Rarity decided, "I will consider myself fortunate if we end the night without my trying to kill anypony. Or, for that matter, without anypony attempting to kill me --"

-- they went around the turn, and the light hit them a split-second before the applause.

Twilight automatically looked down, and a full rainbow of iris hues met her gaze. Ponies were staring at her, staring at all of them as hooves went up and down, some doing the alternating stomp which dominated most of the continent, a few indulging in the repeated rearing-back that was nearly exclusive to the west coast: less frequent, but with more authority behind each impact. And a few...

"That one's just lifting his legs," Spike whispered. "Over and over."

Rainbow snorted. "Maybe he just needs a bathroom," she suggested in a tone which did its best to state that anypony who didn't applaud when she showed up just might wind up in need of a hospital.

Twilight was trying to identify specific ponies, and wasn't having much luck with it. There were simply too many places to look: the hall was roughly fifty body lengths from front to back, and about a third of that from side to side. A few pegasi were in the air, and always in places which wrecked her sight lines. And with all the clothing, searching for the comforting sight of grey just wasn't working out. (She was also on the lookout for his spouse, and wasn't having any luck with that either.) However, despite the presence of guests from outside the settled zone, it could be argued that the gathering was still a representative population for Trotter's Falls: at least for her initial survey, she couldn't spot a single earth pony.

"I don't see Doctor Gentle," Pinkie worriedly said. "Oh, it'll be just typical if somepony decides to be born while we're all having fun! And I didn't even get any infant games set up!"

Which made Twilight immediately focus in that direction before projecting an urgent whisper of "...what kind of games did you set up?" to the center of the line.

"Nothing! I just directed a lot of the clearing. Plus I helped in the kitchen. There was some stuff with the band -- see, they're in that corner, setting up. Oh, and I did the welcome archways at the door and the tops of the ramps!" The bright left foreleg pointed forward.

Everypony looked.

Twilight finally said it for the group. "...it's made of balloons."

Pinkie giggled. "Yeah!"

"...and they're being held together with streamers."

"Yeah! But they're tasteful ones!"

They arguably were: Pinkie had chosen colors which worked with the castle around them, and the edges of the inflated semi-spheres melded into each other in a way which almost made the entrances look as if they'd been carved from a single airy piece. But still, there were balloons...

"Everypony really liked them," Pinkie smiled. "They said they'd never seen that done before, especially on one breath each."

Nopony facehoofed. Facehoofing would have been perfectly visibly from below and besides, the arches had to be made out of something.

"I don't see any reporters," Rainbow decided, trying to both get her words through the applause and not be overheard as the stomping began to inevitably slow. The effort took the most work for her: she was in the lead position. "Not ones I recognize from Ponyville, anyway."

"Quiet said they were going to screen them all out," Twilight replied. "I hope it worked..."

How many ponies? At least a hundred and fifty. And there would be late guests. So many ponies to meet, so many trying to meet her, strangers expecting her to be friendly and social and act with the bearing of a Princess...

"Twilight?" She glanced down at Spike. who was gazing up at her with open concern. "You're breathing a little fast."

"I'm okay," she partially lied. I did it at the coronation... But at the coronation, ponies had been willing to let her do anything at all. I can do this. I can get through it. It's just -- a lot of --

-- a flash of grey tail, one with thin grey stripes running through the mass, and she felt her breathing slow.

"Easy, Twilight," Applejack softly told her: she was just in front of the siblings. "It's just for tonight."

"I'm okay," she repeated. And there was a moment when it was just a little less of a lie.

Softtread took up his place just inside the left edge of the arch. The applause ended, and everypony below waited. Stared.

"Honored guests," the servant began. "Citizens of our settled zone, and those who have favored us by visiting from beyond. We are honored by your attendance here tonight. And I have been honored with the opportunity to introduce those who have saved this nation time and again. The majority of you have never met them, have never had the chance to put faces and coats to names. You know them only as legends in the making and tales which are already being told to the young."

She saw it, in the only moment when the sight would have been possible at all. The pain flickering across Rarity's face.

"We owe them our lives," Softtread continued, voice pitched low and solemn. "We owe them Sun and blue sky. Everypony here exists in a sane world because they stepped forward again and again, when we needed them most. We would do well to honor that."

Most ponies looked at them as those words washed across the crowd. Some would not.

Music began to play, and memory sparked at the first six distinctive notes: The Barding Of The Ancients. An orchestral composition which had been named after a distinctive sky-strip of constellations: in both cases, among the oldest known. No instrument could be loud during the Barding, and none could be anything less than powerful.

Softtread took a slow breath.

"Miss Rainbow Dash," he stated, and the pegasus stepped into the arch, framed by air and streamers. "The Linchpin Of Harmony. Our Exemplar of Loyalty."

Twilight had known Rainbow would be the one who basked in it the most, taking special care to smile and wave a foreleg at anypony who seemed to be applauding harder than the masses -- while simultaneously checking for anypony who seemed to be faking it and memorizing their appearance for later. The only easier prediction had been the one which recognized the pegasus wouldn't stay on the ramp, and the mostly-white dress which gave her the appearance of a streamlined cloud considering whether to transform into a thunderhead streaked over the crowd in a quick circle before touching down at the incline's base.

"Miss Fluttershy Phylia. The Comfort of Harmony. Our Mercy of Kindness."

Who essentially shrunk her way down the ramp, visibly trying to force her head up while the exposed tail mostly tried to take refuge behind her hind legs. She reached the bottom with what Twilight recognized as near-indecent haste and quickly hurried up to Rainbow's right flank, seeking refuge in the only shelter available.

Phylia?

She'd known Fluttershy for over three years and in all that time, she'd never thought to ask if the pegasus had a surname. Then again, it was also the first time she'd ever heard anypony using it...

Perhaps it was a particularly unusual name. Maybe that was why so many ponies seemed to be looking at her...

She's the prettiest of us and that dress was designed to show off her tail. Of course they're looking.

"Miss Rarity Belle," Softtread continued. "The Gift of Harmony. Our Offering of Generosity."

Rarity, under one of the other hooves, generally discarded her surname: as she had explained it, the solo appellation looked better on a label, plus her father was a hoofball coach (and retired player) of some renown -- which, if the relationship was recognized, could win her instant friends in a few parts of the world while manufacturing any number of spontaneous enemies in most of the rest. But she accepted this particular announcement with dignity, and trotted down the ramp as if she'd made such public appearances a hundred times before, every head movement and eye-based acknowledgement just so. She reached the pegasi after a casual trot, and stood unblinking under the scrutiny of so many gazes, opalescent dress serving as weapon and armor alike. After all, something which had been made to work with so many different colors could easily stand up to any number united against her, and if appreciation was coming -- well, then let it come.

"Miss Pinkamena Diane Pie. The Healing of Harmony. Our Bringer of Laughter."

Was the applause softer now? Were there more ponies who were only pretending to stomp? Twilight tried to look, but there was only so much surveying she could do, because the important thing for Pinkie wasn't acknowledgement or even recognition, but that there was a party waiting at the bottom of the ramp. As such, the trot was quick and she joined her friends on the ground level with a smile on her face -- something which didn't seem to be echoed by a fair number on the ground floor.

Softtread glanced towards Applejack as the farmer stepped up. The servant hesitated.

"Like I said," Applejack softly whispered, lips barely moving at all. "The whole thing."

The stallion took a deep breath.

"The Lady Applejack Malus of House Rosaceae."

The sentence multiplied as it hit the air, every syllable creating duplicates at a speed the mirror pool never could have managed, allowing the whole thing to impact hundreds of ears at once. The majority responded to the assault with something approaching a temporary personal fatality: breathing had stopped all over the hall, and it didn't seem to be interested in restarting anytime soon. Several ponies sat down. A few snorted, and those scant sounds were all the louder for the absence of just about everything else.

A small, slightly mercenary smile briefly played over Applejack's lips.

"Keeper Of The Path," Softtread carefully went on. "Discovery Of The Unknown and Bloom Of The New Seed. The Truth of Harmony. Our Reassurance of Honesty."

The farmer began the trot down the ramp.

Somepony stomped their forehooves: Twilight didn't see who. Then somepony else joined in, followed by another, five more came in at once, and then it was most of the gathering applauding. That was normal, at least in some way. But the means by which it had come about, added to the strange expressions on a few faces and the shock settling into Twilight's fur, twitching within her skin and seemingly undoing every touch of makeup all at once...

...Lady?

Twilight forced a breath as Applejack went up to the others, took up her position, orange set off by the tan dress, green eyes silently daring the entire world to make a move.

...Lady?

She seemed to be stuck, and so tried again.

...Malus -- LADY?

But Softtread wouldn't give her the time to reconcile it. "Master Spike of House Twinkle," he went on, and that at least brought a brief smile up through the turmoil of Twilight's total confusion. Her little brother had been legally adopted, and so he was entitled to an introduction under the name of his House --

-- but the next words were new.

"The Protector of Harmony. Our Bulwark of Guidance."

Spike froze on the ramp. Looked back at Softtread. The servant smiled.

"As my Lord instructed," he said. "Go down."

The little dragon slowly made his way down the ramp, walking claws dug in for traction in a way which just about guaranteed a series of series of little gougings in the wood. And there was applause -- but before, there had been reluctance and pure obligation mixed into the other welcomes. Now there was just confusion. A dragon who could claim to be any level of noble? Somepony trying to say there was another aspect to the Elements? The fact that there was a dragon on the ramp at all? Everything added up, and there were so many ponies not looking at Spike, with others simply staring as if they would never stop...

But he walked past them all. He nodded politely to those whose applause seemed sincere. And then he took a place at Rarity's side and gazed out at the crowd with placid eyes. They had been given the words, and it was their choice as to whether any of them would be believed. For his part, at least to Twilight's practiced eyes, he seemed to be having a little trouble with a few of the concepts -- while simultaneously wondering about them and trying to decide if they were something he could accept into himself.

...Lady --

-- but she was out of time.

"The Fair Princess Twilight Sparkle Of House Twinkle," Softtread introduced without mercy. "Our Lady Of The Dusk And Dawn, Incarnate Of The Future, And Most Gracious Blessing Of Hope Upon The Land And Sky. The Enchantment of Harmony. Our Incarnation of Magic."

Her legs moved, and seemed to be doing so independently of her own will. She wanted to go into Quiet's library. She would have given so much to simply curl up with a book for the duration of the gathering, perhaps while somepony read to her. But all four legs were moving, and the trip to ground level began.

The pegasi who had been in the air landed. Ponies all over the hall dipped into the official Royal Greeting Stance, and she could not bear to look at it for long. Her gaze moved over the lowered bodies, caught a glimpse of a brown and white speckled coat near the entrance.

I...

There was finery draped across just about every pony body. Dresses and suits woven by the greatest designers on the continent: she knew that was so because nopony could spend so much time having Rarity assault them with trade magazines without learning something, and that meant she recognized a few fashionable Looks. Three ponies were wearing her friend's creations, and there was a moment where she could simply have pride in that. But it was only a moment.

...this isn't right...

She could see the band now. The musicians bent low among their discarded instruments.

There had been no applause for her, sincere or faked. She wasn't sure how she would have felt if there had been. Rainbow lived for acknowledgement: Twilight was generally content with a touch of academic recognition, the appropriate authorial credit on a journal article, and the most precious things of all: her friends and the Princess telling her she'd done a good job. But the others had received something resembling their due. And for Twilight, it felt as if she'd just been given another type of acknowledgement. An open admission that for so many, this was the only way they could deal with her at all.

The silence filled the castle, and every silent echo carried words.

'You are different.'

'You are strange.'

Desperate eyes reached her friends, the only ones still standing, saw faces which didn't know what to do. How to help, or if there was any way to help at all.

'You are something --

-- other --'

-- two forehooves stomped.

Again. Then again, and once more still --

-- and there was Quiet.

He had a natural rhythm to his movement, and a decided talent for not noticing attention. He didn't pay any visible mind to the way she looked at him, nor did he respond in any way to the ponies whose gazes came up just so they could see who was making the noise. But then some of those ponies saw that it was the host doing it, wondered if he was truly the one committing the breach of protocol or if they were messing it up, herd instinct twisted between following the group and trying to meet the example of the one who seemed to have assigned himself as the leader...

Some ponies straightened. Others did not. On the whole, there was a massive, off-kilter beat of sonic confusion about the hall, and nopony fully got it reconciled before Twilight forced herself not to stagger up to her friends.

Quiet steadily made his way through the crowd as the last of his guests resumed their normal heights, stopped in front of them and nodded to mares and dragon before turning to face the masses.

"These," he told the gathered ponies, "are our Element-Bearers."

Silence. Letting him speak, even if there seemed to be a few visible questions about just who this was that he would presume to speak at all.

"They came to Trotter's Falls to help a friend," he continued. "They remained to offer their support. They are here tonight because I foolishly promised that there would be a party, and they chose not to make me into a liar."

A soft laugh, somewhere in the crowd. It sounded like a mare's voice. Was that Quiet's wife?

"They are here because of us," he softly went on, the careful syllables filling the silent hall, "and as has been said, we are still here because of them." A brief pause. "We thank the Diarchy for Sun and Moon. We look to the Empire and find love. We stand in the presence of our saviors and gaze upon hope. As long as the virtues remain united, we know our nation will stand. That we can wake to the raising of Sun, sleep when Moon is brought over the horizon. That is the kindness of our truth. Our gift, joy, and magic. That we have been guided in our dedication to the world -- and it, in turn, to us."

He nodded once, a simple and personal answer to the silence.

"I don't believe anypony in the world thinks about that every day," he continued. "We have our lives, after all, and spending too much time considering the reasons why tends to get in the way. But tonight, with the Bearers among us... tonight, I would ask that every pony here offer up a few seconds of their lives for that thought, because that would be the very least of what we owe them. Consider that thought -- and then let it go until it's needed again. Because I feel they would ask us to approach them without awe -- but with respect. Grant them the courtesy due to anypony: the acknowledgement of their being somepony worthy of courtesy. We have recognized, we have welcomed -- and now there's something else to do."

Everypony waited. The guests, her friends, a sibling, and Twilight. Waiting on the next words.

"The drinks," he smiled, "have been paid for. The band is coming off our local outdoor concert series and has agreed to extend their tour all the way to this hall. I've been told that the food which will soon circulate among you partially consists of modified griffon cuisine and based on my personal taste trials, let me tell everypony the most important things about that: you will find the bathrooms there -- and there -- and up that ramp, to the left, and it's a quick gallop down the hallway, assuming anypony can still gallop while they're that desperate. Please let somepony know if you enjoy any of it, and if so, how."

More laughter -- and then a wave of it, a surge of relief rushing through the hall as the world slowly tilted back towards normalcy.

"Because this," Quiet finished, "is a party. So --" and a nod to the band "-- shall we?"