Serendipity was still looking up at the gibbous Earth when a hand to her withers startled her from her thoughts.
Since she was sitting, her jump of surprise ended up as more of an awkward twitch. However, it didn't stop her from reflexively lining up her horn with the person who'd sneaked up on her.
Azahar pulled back out of accidental poking range with a probably-sheepish smile – it was always a bit hard to tell nuance on humans who weren't wearing those helpful moving-ear headbands, and Serendipity was no Peachy Keen or Princess Pinkie. She said something Serendipity thought was probably the English for "sorry", immediately confirmed it by making the familiar human gesture for apology, and held out her communications tablet as she sat down.
"Jumpy today, I see."
Serendipity snorted as she read that, and after a bit of telekinetic scrabbling to find where her whiteboard marker had rolled off to, she wrote her reply. "You know it's not nice to sneak up on ponies."
That got a laugh. "Walking around may be quieter up here, but I'd hardly call that sneaking. What had you thinking so hard you couldn't hear my thunderous footfalls?"
Serendipity probably should have looked up "thunderous" to be safe, but it seemed pretty obvious from context. Instead, she turned her head to look past the garden around her at the beautiful desolation beyond, absently tapping her marker against the edge of her whiteboard as she tried to assemble her thoughts.
Before she could, a comment from Azahar diverted her attention. Azahar was leaning back on her elbows in a way that would have left Serendipity wincing back before she'd gotten as used as she could be to humans' range of motion, and was looking up at the Earth with a... perhaps quizzical expression. After a moment's search Serendipity spotted Azahar's tablet, hiding behind her floating whiteboard atop Azahar's pack, and leaned forward to see what she'd said:
"Looks like Cloudsdale's finally conquered the planet. I can't make out anything this time." As Serendipity read, Azahar spoke again, and the text replaced itself. "Well, you won't see me complaining about the first part. Long may it rain."
Serendipity briefly puzzled over that, then tapped her hoof for clarification. Azahar sat back up and forward to look at the transcription, facepalmed, and picked up her tablet to tap out an edit.
Once Serendipity looked up "reign", that got a giggle out of her. "That makes a lot more sense. I was going to ask, you do realize that would destroy the city? I don't think the mayor would approve."
"Yeah, it's possible the voice-to-text isn't quite all there yet." Azahar laughed. "Would make it easier to figure out what on Earth I'm looking at though. So anyway, you going to answer what you were thinking about earlier?"
Serendipity frowned. "Change and seasons, you could say." As was her new norm, she blanked her whiteboard with a thought, but the usual thrill of her amazing new Blank Slate spell was muted by the topic. "I was scribing for the diplomacy and engineering teams earlier, and something about everything all lined up just—" She paused, and spun her marker end-over-end while she looked back out at the garden and the skillfully-crafted bubble that sheltered it from the void.
And again had her attempt to figure out what to say interrupted, though unlike before it was by a wordless huff. Azahar grimaced and gestured apology with her hand not holding her personal tablet, but didn't elaborate until Serendipity tapped her leg. "Well no wonder I couldn't make out anything. Antarctica blends right into the clouds and the Pacific is just about literally everything else." She tapped her personal tablet and then held it out, as though it would actually work for a Worlder.
Serendipity risked a look anyway, and to her surprise it wasn't an incomprehensible jumble of colors that shifted dizzyingly with every little movement of her eyes – the shifts were mild even when she tilted her head side to side, and the jumble of colors needed only minimal effort to resolve as an off-tint Earth with map lines superimposed. "Wow, how did you do that? I thought they still hadn't figured out how to make color screens we can use! Sure the color's way off, but I can understand it!"
Azahar grinned. "Yeah, they still haven't figured out true-color screens yet, but apparently one of the I.T. teams decided that didn't matter and they'd just make RGB fake it even though that's impossible. Obviously that didn't happen, but they did figure out how to use the bio data to customize RGB displays by species so they're at least a little intelligible. Well, to whoever's of the species in question, to everyone else it's a mess."
"I can't imagine what that's like."
"Oh, want me to show you?" Azahar shoved her personal tablet in front of Serendipity's muzzle and tapped rapidly, with the image changing each time – bad, less bad, worse, almost painful, human default that made Serendipity flinch, tolerable, and back to comprehensible.
Serendipity did her best to maintain a deadpan bearing in the face of a grin that she was certain packed as much cheek as a human's modest mouth could accommodate, but after a few seconds folded her ears and snorted in defeat. "Fine, I'll give you that one."
Azahar pumped her fist in exaggerated triumph, insofar as she could while seated, and claimed her victorious scritching as she resumed her explanation. "So anyway, the guy who gave me this version said they'll probably finish ironing out the last couple bugs in the next week or two, so hopefully we'll see it released by next month. I mean, it's hardly perfect, but it'll still be super-nice to not be stuck with physical copy for everything that can't be black-and-white. Though I—" As Azahar worked back up along Serendipity’s poll, she brushed her horn solidly enough to fuzz her horngrip, and Serendipity reflexively pushed away in an effort to keep hold of everything. "—Oh, sorry! Too much?"
"Nah, now that I'm over the scary parts it's fine again. Sort of all warm and tingly, kind of? Which is still weird when it's plants, but when I'm playing with the Expawdition pets it's pretty nice. I just didn't want you to make me drop my stuff."
"Oops, got it. That's only if I hit your horn though, right?"
"Yeah. If the touch is light enough I can cast through it, but it's harder. Like if you tried to do something on your tablet while I was floating your hand in place, maybe?"
Azahar blinked. "Wait, you can do that? I thought the Quench kept magic from affecting Earth life this side of the Gate, and I just answered my own question didn't I? Wait no, my tablet wouldn't work in Equestria, so—"
At which point Serendipity drew off some extra magic from the converter and waved Azahar's hand in front of her startled face. She smirked at Azahar's gobsmacked expression – astonishment was one of the few she'd seen humans make enough to comfortably tell nuance on, and it was always fun. "Not quite. You just need to put in enough more magic that it can't unravel it all."
After a moment, Azahar leaned over with an eagerly-curious grin, another expression Serendipity had seen enough to learn the nuances of. "That's awesome! I have so many questions for—" And then twisted away and let herself fall supine with a groan. "And I never even let you answer my first one did I? Some representative of humanity I am. Maybe you should do that before I distract you again and you never get to finish." She flipped herself back up to sitting with only a bit of overshoot, then paused. "It won't distract you if I start on dinner, will it? Cause I may have distracted myself too, but I do kind of need to get something in my stomach soon."
Serendipity's attempts to remember where she'd left off meant her hornwriting ended up almost as scrawly as it had been before she earned her cutie mark. "As long as you don't have any pepino."
Azahar stopped halfway through pulling her food-purse out of her pack. "Uh."
Serendipity whipped her head around and gave Azahar her best pleading look – drooping ears, quavering eyes, her tail couldn't do much from sitting but she flicked it to curl under her belly just in case. She'd been practicing with some of the culture teams' human members and the local foals in Equestria, and perhaps that—
"Not a chance. Isn't there a question you're supposed to be answering?" As she spoke, Azahar opened her food-purse so the most glorious scent of its most glorious content could tease and taunt Serendipity's nose.
Serendipity drooped her ears and pouted. "What happened to the days when you were nice and shared? I miss them."
"That was before I realized if I kept giving in I'd never eat fruit again." Azahar started folding several foodstuffs whose scents Serendipity didn't recognize into some kind of mealwrap. "So what was it, something about scribing for the diplomacy teams?"
"Yeah. The diplomats were negotiating trade arrangements between Equestria and Griffa and the African Union, and unwise words were said, and during the vigorous debate that followed"— Azahar snickered at that, though not enough to divert her attention wholly —"accusations were kicked about that certain parties were attempting to destroy certain other parties' cultures and ways of life. So business as usual with Commander Granite Sky involved"— Azahar's reaction to that was enough that Serendipity thought she might have a chance, and she made a quick flourish with her marker to catch Azahar's eye while she telekinetically snagged a slice of pepino —"and it normally wouldn't have meant anyth—"
Faster than she had thought humanly possible even after spending so long around them, Azahar shoved her wrap halfway into her mouth and grabbed Serendipity's horn, fuzzing out magic and hornfeel with a burst of the phantom heat that dominated Serendipity's last clear memories of descending to Earth. Serendipity's whiteboard and marker and aspirant pepino all fell to the grass in the overcranked way she could never get used to no matter how long she spent on the lunar surface, but thankfully her marker bounced off of Azahar's pack and came to a stop by her hoof rather than making another bid for freedom.
Azahar angled Serendipity's head around until they were eye-to-eye, then very deliberately raised a fist above their heads and sharply jabbed her thumb toward the ground. While that wasn't a standard gesture, it did convey her meaning emphatically enough to compensate for how ridiculous she looked with her mouth so stuffed it might give even an earth pony some trouble.
After staring Serendipity down a moment longer, Azahar used her free hand to extricate her mealwrap and drop it in her lunch-purse by the beckoning pepino, then grabbed her communications tablet and held it in front of Serendipity's muzzle. "I'm wise to your tricks."
Serendipity dipped her ears and smiled sheepishly.
"So no more trying to magic off my food?"
Serendipity sighed but nodded.
"Okay, I guess you can have your horn back."
The instant after Azahar let go, Serendipity's hornfeel crashed back with an intensity that left her shuddering and shaking her head. Having her magic fuzzed out by the Quench always felt so much... softer, for lack of a better term, than having it snapped by a hornblow or counterspell, that she could never keep herself from expecting its return would be more like the gradual way her senses had been restored as she'd been carried through Earth's sky back towards orbit.
Azahar made the familiar human gesture for okay as she tilted her head questioningly, and Serendipity nodded. "Alright, so before you so rudely interrupted yourself"— Serendipity rolled her eyes —"you said the diplomatic teams exemplifying their name didn't matter because?" To Serendipity's disappointment, Azahar spotted and grabbed the fallen pepino slice as she reached over to prop her communications tablet back on her pack.
"No, it usually wouldn't have mattered, but then I took dictation for the engineering teams and they were talking about how their new project would completely revolutionize the whole World." As she wrote, Serendipity paged through her dictionary to "exemplify" and laughed. "And right after all the yelling about destruction of culture..."
Serendipity tapped her marker as she glanced out past the garden, and turned back to find Azahar looking beyond her with a new slice of pepino held loosely in hand. Before she could stop and second-guess herself Serendipity lunged at it, and bit it out of Azahar's grip as she landed across Azahar's outstretched legs.
Azahar yelped in surprise, then exclaimed something and whapped Serendipity across the withers as she smiled innocently up. Once Serendipity had the whole thing safely in mouth to savor, she craned her neck back to see what Azahar had said:
"No, bad Serendipity! I thought we agreed no stealing my food!"
"Hey, I didn't magic it!"
"And loophole-abusing unicorns deserve to go find their own flipping pepino! Seriously, they barely send me any as is!"
Serendipity dropped her head to the grass with a groan. "I've tried. Pepino must be the only Earth plant without a variant somewhere in the World, because nopony and nobody I've asked has been able to find it anywhere. Are you sure you can't get them to send you some with seeds still in it?"
Azahar scoffed. "They're still taking it slow with testing new plants and animals." As Azahar spoke, Serendipity lifted her head so she could follow along, then decided to rearrange things so she could read without getting neck cramps. "There's no way they'd pay extra to send up seeds they don't want us—" And as she did so accidentally spilled Azahar's communications tablet, which she reflexively caught by its entirety rather than just its TK-grips. She only got to read half of Azahar's second sentence before it crashed.
Serendipity winced as she dropped it on Azahar's pack in front of her. "It could've been a cosmic ray?" Naturally, that was when it locked up halfway through its automatic reboot.
Azahar sighed as she grabbed Serendipity's marker from her magic. "Doubtlessly. So why did that get you down? Normally you're an excited puppy about any new toy they come up with."
It was always weird to see human script that wasn't a name on her whiteboard. Serendipity took her offered marker back, and ducked her head out of the way as Azahar reached down to grab a replacement pepino slice. "I'm not quite sure? I think it's maybe because I've been worried about how fast Princess Twilight's team's started making progress. It makes it easier to get stuck thinking of all the harder parts of change as fall instead of autumn."
That got another probably-quizzical expression from Azahar, and she said what sounded like a command to her personal tablet as she picked it up. Serendipity started flipping through her dictionary just in case, though of course Azahar finished first. "This says those both translate as the same thing. What's the distinction?"
"Fall comes before winter, autumn comes before spring." Serendipity frowned as she verified that her dictionary also translated both identically, then looked up at Azahar, who made the human gesture for continuation. "Fall is what you usually do on Earth, I think, where you get the land ready to sleep deep for a few months of winter. Autumn is when you just have it doze for just long enough to stay on cycle and then wake it back up for spring."
Azahar's eyes widened. "That would explain why it's somehow always spring or summer when I go over. How often can you do that? I assume not always or you wouldn't bother with winter at all, right?"
"It depends on the place." As Serendipity wrote, Azahar tapped briefly on her personal tablet, then dictated a short message to it. "Some do fall and winter almost every year, and I've heard that a few sometimes skip them for a dozade straight. Where I grew up we had them every two or three years and did autumn the rest. I don't know how the ponies in charge choose which to do though, so you'll have to ask one of the weather crew about that."
"Gotcha. And I flagged that for the translation teams, so I might need you to protect me from their wrath for the next few days. I do not envy whoever has to read through three years of legal documents for the entire planet to make sure that misunderstanding didn't screw anything up."
"I'll make anyone who goes after you sub in for me every time Evergale needs dictation until they beg for mercy!" Serendipity giggled, and Azahar almost dropped the last of her food laughing. "But it's probably just a mistake by whoever wrote the dictionary, right? There's no way the translation teams could miss that for years and years without anypony noticing."
"You mean like you?" Serendipity glanced up and back in time to catch Azahar's lips quirked. "You'd be surprised how much can slip through the cracks sometimes." That idiom Serendipity could guess from context. "I bet seasons are one of the things they translated back before anyone knew enough to communicate nuance and they never got around to double-checking it later because nothing came up where mistaking one for the other led to an obvious impossibility. Probably didn't help that English actually has two words for—" Azahar snapped her fingers "—and that's got to be another one of those inexplicably convenient coincidences that's been driving everyone up the wall. I'd bet you anything they're going to just split the meanings between them, redefine one and leave the other as-is."
Serendipity erased enough to give herself room to write in "That would make sense", then circled "driving everyone up the wall" and tapped her marker on it questioningly.
"Metaphorically making them insane because it's obstinately ignoring the fact it shouldn't be possible and just keeps on happening. On which note, you said something about Twilight's research?"
That was probably supposed to be some sort of joke, but if so Serendipity didn't get it. "Well, last time I was back in Equestria I saw her testing a spell or gizmo or something that let a human tablet take dictation from her just like yours does." Serendipity grimaced. "Did."
Azahar grabbed Serendipity's marker out of her grip. "You're pulling my leg."
"Sorry!" Serendipity jerked herself to standing fast enough that the low gravity couldn't keep her hooves from briefly leaving the grass. Before she could do anything else, Azahar patted a hand on her withers.
"Assuming whatever you just yelped was an apology, don't worry, that's just an idiom. My legs are fine. Though I was starting to wonder just how long you were planning to lie there like that. I can't see how it's comfortable."
Serendipity let out a relieved laugh. "Oh. Maybe if we were down below it wouldn't be, but up here the gravity's so weak I barely notice. I could lie like that all day. Want me to show you?" She grinned back as Azahar squeezed her eyes shut and made the human gesture for good. "So what does it mean?"
"Oh right." As Azahar wrote, Serendipity reared up and twirled so she was facing the Earth again, then sat back down alongside her. "It means you must be joking or teasing me. Twilight really had a magic-hardened computer, and they'd figured out how to get it to actually pick up magical speech? That's... just wow."
Serendipity let her ears fall limp. "Yep. Normally I'd be thrilled, but if I can't land something else to do here before her team figures out how to make enough for everypony I'm going to get sent back home and never get to do any of this again, and after all this time I still haven't got any real qualifications."
Azahar cuffed Serendipity upside the head before grabbing her marker. "Don't be ridiculous, you can do tons of stuff! Like, you always know more than I do about what's going on here, and you're practically fluent in English and Russian, and you're really good at magic! They'd be crazy to tell you thanks for all the help, here's the door! Well, portal."
Serendipity snorted. "I only have any idea what's going on because I take dictation for all the different teams, and I don't understand most of what they're talking about. You barely ever look up any Equestrian while I still have to check my dictionary every other minute when I'm reading English and twice that writing it, and my Russian is way worse. And if my brother ever hears you called me really good at magic, he'll laugh his ribs so sore he won't be able to fly for a week."
"Hold on, I know you can teleport, and I thought that was supposed to be a super-difficult spell. How can you possibly not be good at magic?"
Serendipity huffed a breath past her teeth as she let her head drop to the grass. "I can only do that here. Back home I can memorize all the spells in the World, but I still can't figure out how to draw off energy from the aether and have no idea why, and a single pony's own magic production is barely enough to do anything. If it weren't for the converter I'm not sure I could even blank my whiteboard." As she held her marker loose for Azahar to re-take, Serendipity spotted an errant overlong tussock and absently nibbled it back to even with the rest.
"Well, that's still something. I mean, that means they have to keep you here to make use of your magic, so that's halfway to problem solved right there!" Azahar gave her a grin almost as cheeky as before, and Serendipity rolled her eyes but bobbed her horn to grant the point. "And I still say you're being ridiculous dismissing all the rest, but even if it were true, think of it like this: the Princesses are all about friendship, right? So they'd try to find some way for you to stay so you didn't lose those connections, and if you did get sent away they'd make sure you could come back and visit." That was a consideration Serendipity hadn't pieced together in quite that way before. "Plus if absolutely nothing else, humans are always going to want to meet the first extraterrestrial to ever take one small step on Earth, so once they've finished ironing the last few kinks out of the skyhooks you're going to be swamped no matter where you are."
"Even if she was only first because she was a scribe for the actual VIPs who ran away from her minders in a bout of Quench-addled stupidity and got to the edge of the lot to lie down in the grass before they figured out how they should respond?"
"Details. Honestly, I think the fact that every single historic first has involved a screwup by one or both sides makes the whole thing better. It'd be easy to be way too serious about the solemn dignity of the most important events in the history of humankind if we didn't have some humor built right in."
Serendipity laughed. "There might be something to that. And I'm still not sure there's nothing to worry over about Princess Twilight's team's progress, but that did help." Azahar beamed. "Hopefully it'll be enough to let me be excited about all the good parts again. I think a little of what's had me feeling down is that I know it's ridiculous to be feeling down about all these improvements that will revolutionize Equestria and it's frustrating that I can't just stop. And I'd still like to think I'll get to visit Earth again somehow without losing my faculties this time." Serendipity looked wistfully up at the Earth shining bright in the blackness beyond. "My memories after we got below the Quench are mostly fuzzy and disjointed, but I remember standing at the edge of that lot looking at the endless plains and sky, and the overwhelming impression of beauty."
Azahar burst out snickering. "Of Texas? Really?" And held up her hands to ward off Serendipity's glare. "Sorry, not meaning to be rude or dismissive or anything. It's just that Texas is fine and all, but it's not really renowned for overwhelming beauty way a lot of other places are, and I kinda have to agree."
After leveling Azahar with a dubious look for a moment longer, Serendipity took her marker back. "If so, I guess I have even more to hope for. It might just be the different ways we're built though. A little while back I was waiting with a couple bio team members, and they were talking about how there's an English idiom about grass always seeming greener across the divide and that the way our eyes work means that's literally true. You know, your grass looks greener to us than ours does and ours looks greener to you than yours."
"No way, really? You're pulling my leg." Azahar smiled a probably-smirk at Serendipity, until Serendipity drew off enough magic from the converter to lift her knee up to her chest and she made the human gesture for stop with a giggle. "I did know World's colors tended to seem more vibrant than Earth's, but I didn't realize it went both ways. That's beautiful." She paused for a moment, then her eyes widened and she chuckled. "No pun intended. So anyway, you said you can learn spells just fine and it's only casting that's a problem, right?"
"Yeah, keeping track of a bunch of stuff in my mind at once is part of my talent whether it's written as well as spoken, so that takes care of the part most other ponies find hardest." Not that Azahar could see Serendipity's cutie mark for herself to be sure, but Serendipity had sketched it out for her before, so she at least had the general idea.
"And you said that here casting isn't a problem, so that basically means you can do anything anyone's come up with, right?"
"Not really, since the converter can only make so much magic at a time. If I tried to do anything too big it wouldn't work."
"But plenipotent within that limit." Serendipity didn't know that word, but she thought she remembered what "potent" meant and it seemed to fit, so she nodded and then looked it and "plenipotent" up while Azahar wrote. "So you could take care of all your worries and wants at once by finding a spell that would let you shrug off the Quench: you'd get to go to Earth, everyone would clamor to meet you there, and you know enough of the languages to talk back to them. Are you sure there isn't anything of the sort? I can't imagine Twilight hasn't looked into it, and maybe she's got something almost ready to go."
Serendipity twisted her mouth to the side and flicked her ears. "I'm hardly an expert, but from what little I could understand I gather right now the only options are to either saturate the area with too much magic at once for the Quench to unravel it all, which isn't going to happen in the middle of Earth's biosphere, or to actually be something from Earth, which also isn't exactly—" And then her mind caught up to what she was saying, connected it with some of the transmutation research she'd middlemared for, and left her wondering why she'd never heard anypony even hint at trying to cross the two.
After a few moments, Azahar tapped her on the withers, and she shook her head and blanked room on her whiteboard. "So, should I take it you do have an idea after all?"
"Maybe? It'd be really weird if nopony smarter than me had tried it, but I've never heard anything to suggest they have." Serendipity looked back out over the garden past the dome, but only got to tap her marker once before Azahar grabbed it.
"Well, it's something to look into going forward, so I'd call that progress! So no more being maudlin today, okay?" Serendipity quickly looked that up, then snorted and nodded. Azahar smiled and finished writing her next sentence with a touch of extra flourish. "So now that my amazing secret friendship therapy ninja superhero skills have saved the day from despair once again! I should probably go trade this in before it gets too late." Azahar shook her communications tablet, then watched it for a moment before sighing and slipping it inside her pack. "That would've been a nice time for it to start working again. Come on inexplicably convenient coincidences, work with me here. And you should come down too, you've been up here for quite a while. Keep my things for a moment in case my ninja skills forsake me?"
Serendipity cast one last look at the Earth above before she stood and turned toward the small clear pond separating her spot from the understation entrance. "As usual?" Azahar glanced at that as she finished closing up her pack and rolled her eyes. Before she could reply, Serendipity dashed over to the water's edge and leaped, holding her marker and whiteboard close with her. Her lack of practice with low gravity meant she ended up overshooting as usual and almost landed in a bush, but better that than the times she'd overcompensated and gotten soaked. She retrieved her muzzle from its unplanned investigation of the garden's scents just in time to turn and watch Azahar sprint across to catch her, sending up lunar-huge splashes with every step.
Azahar foundered as she reached the near shore, but managed to make it all the way over without falling in, and whooped in triumph as she recovered her footing. As Azahar jogged around to join her, Serendipity promptly made up for the lack of falling by stamping in applause, startling because she'd forgotten to reduce her force for the lunar surface, and overbalancing herself.
Azahar snickered as she grabbed Serendipity's marker and whiteboard. "I think your applause needs some work."
Serendipity huffed as she grabbed her marker and whiteboard back, then quickly scribbled out "So does your catching" and lobbed her whiteboard past Azahar's waist just out of reach. Azahar stumbled as she grabbed for it with a lifetime's instincts of full-strength gravity, then walked over to retrieve it from the bush while Serendipity got back to her hooves, and laughed when she saw what it said. She made the human gesture for good as she offered it back to Serendipity, then pointed to their packs and tilted her head.
At which point Serendipity facehoofed as she realized that in their haste they'd left them too far from the water's edge for her meager magic skills to reach. "One moment." She passed her marker and whiteboard to Azahar to hold, then leaped back over the pond to get in range, and carefully picked up Azahar's pack by its straps to float across while she put on her own.
As she landed back next to Azahar, doing so with much less bush than before, Azahar held up her whiteboard. "Couldn't you have just walked a little way around the edge and grabbed them from there?" Serendipity facehoofed again, and Azahar smirked. "I guess you really are jumpy today, I see." And dodged out of swatting range with a cackle, and made a break for the understation entrance while Serendipity gave giggly chase.