In the end, when morning arrived following the horrid night, Persica declared herself feeling a little sicker than before and stayed in bed just to sleep off all the hours she missed. Habeas, with no small amount of glee in his stride, bought the lie and spent the morning taking care of her. He tidied the house thoroughly, brought her breakfast in bed, and eventually went out to tend to the matters in the yard, though not before asking if Persica would be alright by herself. Persica said she would be fine and most likely fit enough to go help him in a short while, and Habeas in turn scooted outside to work on the garden.
Before she met Habeas, Persica had long wanted to make a vegetable garden in the back yard, in between the peach orchard and the house, from which she could grow her own vegetables to eat and occasionally sell alongside the peaches. It seemed like a pipe dream with the lack of time she had to make it, until the changeling came into her life, however unfortunate the circumstances may have seemed at the time. As the price for allowing him to recover from the injuries he sustained in their encounters, Persica used him as labor to build the garden, and he helped her realize her wish without so much as a hint of dissent against it. That act of selflessness was only a small portion of the many reasons she loved him now.
Eventually, after sleeping in for a while, the mare woke up with a mighty yawn. She got out of the bed feeling better than before, stretched her limbs out, and immediately got herself ready to go meet up with Habeas outside.
She was glad she was about to head out to help him. It would hopefully take her mind off of the troubling thoughts and facts that kept her awake last night and irked her during her rest most of this morning. Being in his presence always brought with it a feeling of immense comfort that warmed her very soul, and she needed that feeling now more than ever.
Before going out she checked herself over in the mirror that sat in her room. She looked calm, her mane was straight, and her cutie mark - displaying a peach with a spear behind it - was clean of any sort of filth that had the chance to cover it. Deciding she was ready to join him, she walked down the stairs, trotted outside and got a good look at the yard.
Things... didn't look good, to be blunt. She knew that the moment she looked at Habeas. He had a worried visage on his face as he worked in the middle of the garden with a watering can in his mouth, and judging from what he was working around, it didn't take Persica long to find out the reason why. All of the plants and vegetables once growing so well and large in the garden were smaller, weak, dried and sickly-looking, like symptoms of a drought or bad plague that had beset upon them. The green leaves on the trees of the peach orchard looked less lively and green, and the fruit hanging beside them on the branches were all equally unwell. Some that had actually fallen from the effects their plight even looked partially shriveled where they laid on the ground.
Whatever was happening with their orchard and garden had been going on in minor, but manageable doses for almost a week now, but today it clearly looked twice, possibly three times as worse as what it was the day previously. Holding her breath, Persica quietly entered the garden and walked up to him. "Habeas, are you alright?" she asked him.
"I'm fine. I just don't understand how it's starting to act like this... how this happened," he sighed after putting the watering can down; his tail, which resembled a transparent insect wing like the slightly-smaller kind folded within his shell, twitched twice anxiously. He touched a squash vine that looked fairly withered; almost like it would crumble away in his hoof, were it not so delicately placed. "We've done everything we're supposed to do. Even the peach trees don't look as healthy as they did last year. It can't be a drought going on; there's been ample rain and plenty of sunlight. We've even given them water on the days when rain never comes. What could have done this?"
Walking around, Persica came across something quite queer laying on the ground of the garden the second the changeling finished his sentence. Examining it for a second and coming to a conclusion, she answered him. "A boggart."
"What did you say?" Habeas asked her, his brow lowering as he adjusted the green, patchwork handkerchief he wore around his neck with a hoof.
"A boggart," Persica repeated in a grunt, picking up and showing to her coltfriend the tomato she had found. Looking at it closely, Habeas noticed that a noticeable chunk of the fruit was gone; like something with small, sharp teeth had bitten it off and eaten it. "I think we may very well have a boggart residing in our midst."
As Persica inspected the tomato a second time, Habeas was thoroughly confused. "What's a... 'boggart', if you don't mind me asking? Some kind of rodent?"
Hearing him, the mare scanned the dirt on the ground for tiny tracks, her thoughts becoming more single-minded on this new task at hoof as she explained. "They're a species of minuscule, fairy creatures, related to brownies, hobs, brags and pixies. They're household spirits that have personalities of varying shades of malevolence, most of which range from being mildly annoying nuisances, to downright harmful beings. They're smart little packrats, and don't underestimate them, because they're quite sapient. And intelligent enough to speak, wear clothes, and find joy in the misery of others. One way they can make their presence known is to cause crops to wither and die, and they help themselves to what's left of them that's not been tainted by their magic."
She looked at Habeas again after taking a deep breath, bouncing the tomato in her grasp. "I think one was traveling around, found our house to its liking, and decided to... take up residence. It's no doubt set up a nest somewhere..."
"How do you know this?"
"In the years when I was a monster hunter with Chantilly, we were paid to deal with more than one boggart in a few ventures," she responded, thinking back to times long since past. "You know it's one of them when you see the signs starting. Household items will go missing, objects will fall or fly from their spots and break, dogs go lame, crops fail... Yeah, I think it's a sign of a boggart alright."
"We might not have any dogs to test your theory on, but you said items will go missing or break," Habeas pointed out. "Has that happened too?"
"It's happened. I remember some silverware and dishes somehow slid off of the counter and made a large mess on the floor right after I had removed them from the dishwasher yesterday, followed by what I thought might have been a muffled laugh coming from somewhere within the walls. I thought it was just an accident and tricks being played on my ears. And over the past three days that some of my special porcelain dinnerware's been vanishing like smoke. The last time I walked by the cabinet holding them, I noticed that two small tea cups, a pot lid and a plate inside of it were gone in total. I had suspicions then, but nothing major. Now, I'm finding more evidence that's proving them. Not sure if it is indeed the case, but if I were to wager anything, I'd bet my tail it was that creature."
She looked back at the half-eaten tomato in her hoof before letting it drop to the ground below. "Case in point."
Habeas' eyes widened as a startling thought came to his mind. "You said they like to pilfer things. What would that kind of... stuff be classified as?"
"They tend to decorate their lairs with comfy, shiny, or simply mundane objects and trinkets it deems of any worth, or just finds pretty. Jewelry, toys, doll's clothing, bits and baubles. The like."
"Jewelry?" the changeling spouted in a somewhat panicked tone that he quickly choked down back to the normal voice it was previously. "Persica, I'll... I'll be back in a few minutes..." he said next, walking out of the garden and hurriedly into the house. Persica watched him leave with a curious look on her face. She soon turned her focus back to the garden and went to picking what had not yet been enfeebled with a wicker basket the changeling had previously brought out and left to the side.
Running upstairs to their room as fast as his legs could take him, Habeas dashed inside and zoomed to one corner of it where a small drawer with an old lamp on its dust-coated surface was waiting for him. The piece of furniture was not something Persica ever used, and so Habeas took full advantage of it himself. Taking an iron key out from where it was hidden under the hollow bottom of the lamp, he put it into the lock of the drawer's single cupboard, twisted it with ease, and pulled the cupboard open with a shrill squeak. Sifting a hoof inside of it for a brief instant, he yanked out a velvety, blue engagement box. As soon as it was flipped open, he sighed in pure and thankful relief, plucking out what was within it by its fine gilded chain, just to make sure no harm had come to it.
The necklace was safe. The golden engagement necklace with three red diamonds encrusted in its heart-shaped pendant, the one he had paid for using his share of the money given from selling peaches and vegetables, was safe. The one he was going to use to propose to Persica, the mare he loved more than anything else. It was safe.
With his bout of paranoia unfounded, Habeas placed it back into the small box. Closing it with a light clap befitting of its size, Habeas put it into the cupboard neatly and pushed it shut with another grating squeak from the aged wood. He locked it back up, then hid the key under the lamp. No demented little fairy had gotten the treasure yet, and it wouldn't at all with how well he had hidden it. It was safely tucked away under lock and key, and the key was hidden as well.
While he knew it was usually the custom for unicorns to propose with horn-fitting rings of similar making, Habeas found out a little while ago that earth ponies did a similar ritual, but with necklaces, as this one was made for. Habeas could not wait for the day he could place it around Persica's lovely neck. He desired nothing more than to propose to her, to make their relationship final. But three perfect chances had passed since he had gotten the necklace some time ago, and he lacked the courage to speak his mind to Persica.
The same issues always haunted him, filled his mind with overblown doubts he simply could not ignore. What if he slipped with his words and said the wrong thing? What if she wasn't ready to make such a commitment? What if he screwed it up in a way that irreparably ruined everything? Those three questions would pound in his head first and foremost every time he saw an opportunity to ask. He would chicken out at the last second, and each time he did so, he chastised himself for his cowardice.
Sitting on the nearby bed and sucking in a deep breath of air, Habeas pondered his situation for a short while. He was planning on taking Persica out to dinner at a fanciful restaurant in Canterlot in a few days, where he hoped he would finally be able to take her hoof into his and say those binding words that declared his eternal love for her. He hoped to do it so very much, and properly. But he was no pony. He was not a being that one would expect to follow the traditions of her kind.
It seemed that trying it out would be his only hope of finding out. Oh, how Habeas both dreamed of, and dreaded the days to come...
As Habeas remained doing his own business elsewhere, Persica was finishing her collecting of all the healthy vegetables in the garden. Walking out of it with the basket containing them balanced neatly over her back, she caught the equine shape of someone walking happily down the dirt path that led from the road to the house. Before the shape got close enough to properly recognize, she suspected it was her daughter, Peach Blossom.
A few seconds later, when the shape grew close enough for her aging sight to properly make out, Persica's easy suspicion was confirmed. Currently working part-time at her job in Canterlot, a job she took on her mother's advice to show how responsible of an individual she had become, Blossom strove with a desire to please. Her shift today was a mere four hours, so it was a small wonder why she was back so early. Knowing her dear daughter was no loner the small filly she once resembled, but a young mare with sturdy strengths all her own, Blossom was old enough to walk home from the place by her lone self. So that's what the young pony did, with something of a proud strut in her step each time she arrived back here.
Placing the basket down, Persica stood in wait at the base of the garden, just until Peach Blossom was within earshot without her having to yell her greetings. "How was your day, Sweetie?" she asked.
Peach Blossom's face was full of her trademark youthful merriness when she approached. "It was good," she said, as she seemed to typically say after being asked about it. Blossom soon took notice of the garden and trees. Her expression become more melancholic with every succeeding second.
"The garden's still not doing well?" she sighed.
"No," Persica replied, shifting her good eye on the vegetables she had grabbed prior to her daughter's arrival. "And unless we fix the problem that's at the root of it all, it's not going to get any better. However, I think I know what to do."
"I'd hope so. I've never seen this kind of thing happen to the garden..."
"But Blossom, what's happening to the garden and orchard isn't the only thing troubling us," Persica went on. "As it stands, I think we may have a pest problem on our hooves as well."
Peach Blossom hummed and thought for a few seconds before taking a guess as to what the situation was. "Squirrels in the attic again?"
"Something a bit more serious and... cantankerous than squirrels, I'm afraid," her mother spoke. "You know those stories I told you as a filly about what the ever-mischievous boggart is?"
"Yes, I do. You told fairy tales of them to me to scare me," she chuckled, before her eyes widened slightly in realization. "Wait, are you saying..."
"Yep." Persica bit her lip and looked back to the garden and orchard. "We've got one. At least, I'm pretty sure we do. And if that is the case, it's the cause of this entire mess."
Peach Blossom's ears splayed back in uncertainty. "Oh dear... is that bad?"
"Strong as they are, it's nothing I can't deal with," Persica smirked to her daughter. "But, to be on the safe side, I think it would be best to hide or lock up whatever valuables you don't want to risk getting trashed or stolen by the thing."
Blossom looked at the garden, then back to her mother. "I can do that," she agreed, nodding her head and blinking her green eyes.
"Then you had best get to it, when you can," the mare said. "I've got all the activities covered out here, and Habeas will be back out in a second to help me."
Nodding, Peach Blossom was starting to turn, to go accomplish this task, but one thing stopped her. First and foremost, there was something on her mind she needed to let out. She had been thinking to say it since her shift's end, so now, inhaling the deepest and most anxious of breaths, she did it. "Mom, there's one more thing. I was going to see a movie on Friday night with a friend. It's okay with you if I do that, right?" she inquired hopefully. "And don't worry, it's just Bumble Bee and I. It's not any colt you don't know," she added next.
Persica thought of the young pony with a long hum that reverberated from her throat. Of the few times she saw him, she witnessed a jolly and expressive colt who behaved himself well enough. But, then again, she didn't see him firsthoof all that much in the years of late. What to do...
"Fine, fine. You can go see it with him," were the words she smiled after a minute of contemplating her decision.
"Really?" Blossom spoke with a shining smile, actually a little surprised that her request had been granted.
"Yes. But if I find so much as one piece of evidence that you two did something more than simply watch a movie, I'll... do something," she chuckled, unable to think of any punishment to threaten her daughter with when she looked at the face of pure joy she now gave. "And you know just how good my eye is at finding the little details on a pony. Remember that, now."
Blossom hugged her mother in a flash of movement, speaking "Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!" repeatedly and at a high volume, before letting her go and rushing to the house. Persica mumbled another laugh after observing her daughter vanish inside the door like the wind itself, and then lowered her hoof to the basket sitting on the ground beside her. As she made her own way toward the house with it she started forming a plan to deal with the boggart, glad that she now had something sizable enough to worry about over her other problem. At least, for now...