Heart and Soul

by Orkus

First published

Much time has passed for the changeling Habeas Brittle since he settled down on the peach farm with the pony love of his life. However, not all is too well, as an uneasy question plagues his mind. And he's not the only one going through a crisis.

Featured 1/22/2017

Much has changed, both figuratively and literally, since the changeling Habeas Brittle and the pony Prunus Persica saw past their differences and found something truly dear in one another. But as some time goes by and their affinity for the other reaches its apex, they find the unexpected and unpredictable has not yet abandoned their worries.

Both turn their gazes toward the unforeseeable future, tailed by dogged fear and angst, yet with hope still warm in their minds and hearts. And as fate would have it, they aren't the only ones who are discovering terrible troubles in dire need of being overcome.

WARNING! Spoilers in Comments Section! You have been warned.


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Apini Bee was a changeling who had long ago been cast out from the changeling hive as but a nymph. Why she had been cast out all those years before was of a simple matter to explain. While one was of a natural teal color, her fully red-colored eye, which to say was the left one on her face, would always stay with her whenever she took the shape of another being. Changelings were creatures who valued perfect deception above all else, and usually used their skills to impersonate others. With such a dead giveaway to be burdened with, and the fact that her father was the first to bear it, such a mutation had the chance to spread and contaminate the hive through their bloodline if given the chance, and it was a weakness that needed to be ridden of before that chance could arrive.

Apini may not have been part of the hive, and she may have lived most of her life disguised among ponies who didn't know what she was, but she still followed the orders of her queen, Chrysalis. It was all she had to do to prove her loyalty, and it was the closest she felt to being accepted by her kind. Those orders, which she carried out without question, were almost always about what to do with certain ponies and other creatures who threatened, or fell into Queen Chrysalis' plans. Whether it was disrupting whatever actions they had, to indispose them, or to downright eliminate them, she would perform these with surgical precision.

And that was why she was here today. What she stared at from where she stood was a small farm that possessed an orchard of peach trees. It looked like a comfy and cozy abode, but the two inhabitants of it were soon to have their pleasant laziness interrupted. They were a pair of strong earth ponies, Chantilly Cream and Prunus Persica; a husband and wife, most likely, and ones who were the hunters of monsters-turned peach farmers, by the looks of things. From the report she received from a visiting drone, Apini heard that they had previously attacked and chased off a group of changelings who were enforcing Chrysalis' will not too long ago. This, of course, gained the Queen's ire, and when the Queen found ire in someone or something, death, among other forms of punishment, was typically swift to follow.

Where Apini currently stood, just out of sight, was the edge of a treeline that was part of the thickly forested area the clearing containing the blue-painted house and orchard was located within. It was a woodland that surrounded the pony capital of Canterlot, and was abundant with beasts. Great timberwolves, savage trolls, and perhaps even a fearsome dragon-or-two had the chance to inhabit it, but none would definitely venture this far into the territory the ponies. Having studied her foes from afar and concocted her plans immensely, Apini would use the dense forest to her advantage. All she had to do was lure her prey to her, and the hunters would become the hunted...

She waited in silence for almost a half hour, and only when she saw the two, furred shape of ponies - a stallion of a light blue color and mare of a much more creamy brown tint - leave the house and merrily enter the porch of their home was when her moment arrived. The instant she saw them, Apini walked out into the open clearing, just past the trees. To get their eyes onto her, Apini started to jump around where she was, almost like dancing about. Her movement quickly caught their eyes as planned, and they looked to her with surprised, but by no means fearful expressions. If anything, they looked more annoyed and startled than that. They started to converse out of the changeling's hearing range after a few seconds passed by, and the stallion dashed inside of the house again, returning back outside with a sword of a professional making in his hoof. After that, he began making his way toward the changeling at a quick pace.

He had taken the bait. And it made Apini doubly happy when she saw it was just him coming for her. For whatever reason that didn't concern her, the mare had stayed behind, though there was a look of concern on her face. One target was much easier to handle instead of two at once. With the stallion fast approaching, Apini backtracked into the forest and vanished into the foliage.

For a time, Apini avoided his sight, but didn't allow him to leave hers. Sometimes she would hide in the trees as he searched for her with a grimace and sword pointed forward. Other times she would move ahead and shift into the form of a small tree, then observe him as he unwittingly passed by. She would leave the occasional hint that would lead him into a preferable direction, such as purposefully breaking a twig or rustling a bush. Only when Apini knew he was too far away to be heard by the other pony at the house was when she chose to strike.

After she finished leading him astray to a small glade and ducked behind a bush, Apini dug up some items she had hidden in the dirt there. What she had kept stored was a pair of dime store fake blood packets, made to simulate the smell as well as appearance. They were the kind typically used for terrible pranks on the pony holiday of Nightmare Night, or plays put on in a theater. She had intended to split the two ponies up if they chased her at once and then use them, but now was even more perfect of a time to use them. After assuming the form of the stallion's dear wife and getting into character, Apini applied the packets' red liquid contents on varying parts of her body until it seemed realistic and walked into the glade. Chantilly detected the movement from the corner of his eye, but the second her saw her and pointed his sword her way, he froze and lowered it.

"Persica?!" he sputtered. "What the hell are you doing out here?!"

Apini almost wanted to snigger at how quickly he was starting to fall for her disguise, especially the face of horror he put on at seeing her 'wounds', but she stayed in character to keep that illusion up to her prey. Feigning a limping stagger, she pretended to trip after two steps and fell down upon the ground pitifully, keeping her one hoof over her red eye when she did so. "I-I followed you. You know I couldn't let you go off on your own, Chantilly!"

"Wh-what happened?! What did that creature do to you?" he cried, running up to her side and dropping the sword to the ground; oblivious to the trick being pulled on him in the flash of panic he was struck by.

"Heh. Don't w-worry about it. I handled the changeling myself," she lied. "Sure, my weapon's still impaled in its carcass, but I... got it."

"Even so, why did you put both yourself and the life of our child at risk? You're wounded!" he scolded. "You were in no condition to fight whatsoever, and now look at yourself! You're lucky to be alive!"

Child? thought Apini with a jolt of surprise. She managed to conceal it enough to Chantilly as he continued looking her over. Every time his hoof came close to where the fake blood seemed to originate from, she would flinch in faux-pain to make him take his hooves away. The mare's pregnant, eh? Apini continued to think on through all of it. So that's why she didn't follow. What to do about her...

"I'll... I'll run back to the house and grab some bandages," Chantilly eventually said in a gentle, albeit worried voice, standing back up. The second he spun around to rush off and make good on his word, he instead shook the idea out of his mind, not feeling quite right with leaving what he saw as his wife alone in the forest in such a condition. "No... no, I can't leave you out here." He turned his head and faced her direction. "Persica, if I'm going to patch you up, I'll get you out of this forest first, whether it will-"

Chantilly found himself unable to speak when he properly registered the dark, chitinous shape his green eyes then met. What was now standing before him was no longer his wife. It was a changeling, on its hole-filled legs and in a combative position. The same changeling that bore the red eye on its face; now along with a malefic grin on its fanged maw. Wiping some of the fake blood off of its form, the creature put her hoof onto his sword, still lying idly on the ground beside her, and kicked it back behind herself, out of his reach.

Her fangs bared, brow furrowed, and horn glowing a sickly green color, Apini savagely pounced upon Chantilly next before he could so much as yelp in startled surprise, ready to suck out every last drop of love he had and fulfill her duty to her queen.

A Fearful Truth

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The doors leading to but one of many long, winding halls of the hospital flew open as the nurses and doctors rolled in a stretcher as fast as they could push and pull it. The mare with the distended, pregnant stomach on the stretcher, Prunus Persica was her name, was an earth pony of a tan coloration and an unkempt, dark brown mane, and currently a strained disposition as she felt the unrivaled agony that came with going through labor. Both of her eyes; her blue right eye, and her scarred, clouded, blind left eye, were squeezed shut so hard that tears were forming at their edges.

She whimpered, puled, and generally cried out as the pain she felt originating from the base of her body enveloped all of her known senses. She had been separated from her family for almost five minutes after being admitted into the hospital. Being unable to hear their familiar voices any longer, with the baby coming, left bleak worry to stain her mind. It was not the first time such a situation as this occurred, but somehow... somehow it felt so much worse than before.

Persica eventually sensed a host of bright lights shining over her closed eyes from somewhere above her after feeling the stretcher burst through a door, into what she thought for certain, with what frayed bits of awareness remained with her, was the operating room. She could barely feel herself being lifted off of it and onto a bed as she was overcome by the wretched pain in her abdomen too much to even realize it. Colors filled her sight—a rainbow, shattered into a thousand pieces and scattered in a chaotic combination. They overtook her vision, blinding her. It scared her.

Fear and pain tore at Persica like something not of this world. Nothing seemed to change for the mare but the volume of torment she felt, when a voice suddenly went out, ringing somehow clearer than anything else. "We need to perform a C-section!" it came through the haze. A deep, male voice. "Get me some anesthetics, stat!"

Moments after hearing the command go out, the excruciating pain Persica was experiencing went almost completely numb as the anesthesia injected into her system took hold of her. Heavenly numbness, it was almost like a wave of relief was washing over her entire being. The colors leaving her view, Persica's eyelids dropped like curtains and she let her exhausted head fall onto the sweat-soaked pillow below her like a rock. Her breathing having gone from erratic to practically lethargic in seconds, the doctors and nurses operated on her without resistance.

An unknowable amount of time went by, and Persica fluttered in and out of consciousness throughout most of it. She only felt her mind begin to return to reality when a gentle female voice spoke up from somewhere. "She's still awake, doctor," it said, unhurried but cautious. "Shall I give her some more anesthesia?"

"No, it's alright," came what Persica realized was the same voice from before who ordered her to be placed under it to begin with. "We've almost got the child out. She may want to see it before we put her fully under and begin the next operation."

Within minutes, or perhaps hours as it felt to her addled senses, Persica realized a hoof had snaked underneath the pillow holding her head. In a careful motion, it gently lifted both for her, so she could see the newborn most likely being cradled by the medical staff, she suspected. So it was indeed, as her view started adjusting to some fuzzy shapes standing beneath the light cast from the lamps above. They were cooing to each other of the child's health, expressing surprise and awe and pride in their work all at once.

"Miss Prunus Persica," the doctor himself started, speaking up with the utmost mirth in his tone. "Say hello to your new foal!"

In the vivid, yet somehow dim light Persica could make out the vague silhouettes of the doctors and nurses standing at the foot of the now sheet-covered bed, along with a long, limbless shape. It was white, and faceless. A grub-creature caked in her blood. It writhed about in their firm hooves, squealing and screaming out in some abominable tone with demented fervor, crying out for its mother. Its mother, who could only look upon it with a sickening mixture of pure horror and revulsion.

It was then that Persica awoke from the terrible nightmare, just as it reached its horrid climax. Her eyes flashed open and she sat up on the bed with the pace of a bullet, gasping for air as though she had nearly been drowned. Her heart pounded in her chest like a hammer speedily whacking a nail in perfect repetition and a thick sweat had broken out through most of her body, covering her fur in its cool feeling.

Closing her eyes, Persica caught her breath and calmed herself down until her panting went silent. When she became fully aware that it was all just a dream, she looked down to her left and saw the teal-colored, chitinous shape of her lover, the changeling Habeas Brittle, still dead asleep under the red covers beside her.

Just seeing this one individual next to her was what informed Persica that everything was okay. Many years beforehoof she had lost her husband in an incident with a vile, red-eyed changeling that forced her to kill him herself, and it scarred her as much as her maimed and unseeing eye could attest to. But when Habeas entered her and her young daughter's lives a great amount of time afterword, upon getting past a fairly rocky start that forced him to stay with them and recover from wounds he got in his first (and admittedly second) encounter with the mare, this one happy-go-lucky changeling changed her mind on many matters for the better. He reintroduced intimate feelings she once thought forever lost, and the two formed a close relationship as a result that still went strong to this day.

But with a troubling, disturbing truth Persica held to herself as of now, for how much longer would it last?

Still sitting up, Persica closed her eyes and bowed her head slightly as her heart rate returned to normal. The nightmare she had just endured was nothing more than a figment of her imagination, but there was a large, fearful reason that was surely the inspiration for its unbridled nastiness. A reason that she felt not even the always-loving, always-reassuring Habeas Brittle could convince her to raise a wall of courage against. Assuming he understood it as she did, anyhow.

Normally, Persica was a pony of a stoic demeanor as rigid as stone unless in the company of Habeas or her now-teenage daughter, Peach Blossom. Right now, thanks to the panic left behind in her mind from the nightmare, it was more like glass that had just been shattered to fragile shards by the careless swing of a mallet. Not bothering too hard to slip away unnoticed, Persica slowly pushed the covers off of herself, got off of the bed, and stumbled out of the pitch black room, into the upstairs hallway just outside it. From there, with her pathway illuminated by the silver rays of moonlight shining through the circular window at the end of it, she made her way to the bathroom and entered it, locking the door behind herself.

Turning the overhead light on, what Persica did next was approach the cupboard sitting underneath the rectangular mirror and attached to the sink. Opening up the top one and digging through it, she searched restlessly for one box she knew was residing within.

The first time she did this kind of activity was merely out of pure curiosity and doubt. But as fate had showed its ugly head, this was the third night in a row that Persica had done it, but now in much more muddled and desperate of a fashion. She needed to see it again. She needed to see that what she had witnessed all those times beforehoof were not what they seemed, as she had been telling herself repeatedly. It may have been her tired mind forcing this vain hope to become the fore desire of her weary brain, but Persica wanted with all her heart to know, just one, final time. Finally finding the box she sought in the back of the drawer, she sifted a quick hoof through it and pulled out a small, white, stick-like device. A pregnancy test.

Habeas and herself had only engaged in sexual intercourse five wonderful times since they first gave in to the temptation just shy of a year-and-a-half ago, from whence their relationship began. The last time they let their carnal desires take hold was little over a week ago, on a calm night that Peach Blossom was spending away with a close friend. Out of all things to expect from it, this kind of consequence was, in truth, the absolute final thing she thought to see. Thinking of it in the time before it all occurred made her nearly laugh with disbelief. And yet here she was now, once again. There was no laughing. Disbelief had been replaced with bated breath and widened eyes. For now there was only the test.

Persica followed through all the instructions with direct precision. When what had to be done was finished, she slowly lifted the test up to her face and closely studied the results. The test had its result clearly on it, reading the same as the last six she had gone through in the last three days. At this point, even with her semi-aware mind affecting her, Persica only now fully knew that these were no trash readings she could still deny. This entire affair was no astronomically coincidental string of false positives.

The outcome had not changed. She was pregnant.

She was pregnant. Just thinking of that one life-altering word was all it took to make Persica's stomach turn queasy. Habeas was a changeling. She was a pony. Their individual biologies shouldn't have been compatible. The science didn't add up! It should be downright impossible! How was it not? What would this mean? What would it become? What would... the foal look like?

What would the foal look like?

Placing a trembling hoof to her sweat-soaked forehead as the swarm of questions consumed her mind, Persica pondered what this all could have meant, but she came up with nothing in the chaos of it all. She couldn't take her eye off of the test she held and the damning answer it blatantly gave, like a wretched symbol that was mocking her out of spite. All Persica could do was stare at it until the sound of a hoof gently knocking against the door went out, causing her to lose her grip on the test in sheer surprise, which fumbled from her hooves to the tile ground below with a light clatter.

"Persica, are you okay in there?" came the calm, drowsy sound of Habeas' voice from the other side of the door. "I heard you get up and quickly leave the room. Are you well?"

Persica hurriedly picked the test back up and brushed some strands of hair from her messy mane away from of her face, which now bore a deathly pallor. She inhaled a deep breath, summing up all of the will she could muster to form a proper, stable response.

"Y-y-yeah, I'm fine," she lied, putting on a shaky smile of gritted teeth as though he was in the bathroom looking at her suffer through this small panic attack. "Just f-feeling a little bit ill, is all! I'll... I'll be out soon..."

"Ill?" he questioned. "How bad is it? I could go into the kitchen and whip you up some soup or ginger ale, if you like."

"N-no!" The one word she used came out louder than she wanted it to, but she had to roll with it now that it was out, and let her tone simmer down to what it was before. "N-no, Habeas. I'm fine. It must have been something I ate at dinner. It'll pass."

"If that's the case, I could get you something else for it-"

"I'm fine, Habeas," she repeated, her voice rising to a dull growl. "All I need is a few more minutes to myself."

He sighed from behind the door. "Very well, then. I'll go back to bed, but if you're not back in ten minutes, I'm coming back to check on you," he said. The sound of Habeas' hooves slowly pattering away quietly went out through the upstairs hall outside until Persica could hear them no more, and she let out a breath of relief, before having that relief turn back into terror when her eye refocused on what was in her hoof.

She stared at the test for a minute more and then tossed it into the trash, wishing to be rid of it more than anything else at the moment. Shutting off the bathroom light and exiting it, she trudged back to her room and entered it as slow as a snail. She saw Habeas laying back in the bed and crawled into it with him. Crawling under the warm sheets, she got as comfortable as she possibly could now that her night was ruined.

Persica looked at Habeas' still shape, watching as his chest and the covers over it expanded and contracted with every relaxed breath he took, and wanting more than anything to ask him a particular question. "Habeas," she eventually whispered into his ear as the temptation became too much, her hooves stroking the thick locks of her chocolate-brown mane anxiously.

"Yes?" he yawned, rolling over and facing her with a loving, sleepy smile on his face. "Something you need, dear?"

"I just want to know something. What are..." she felt reluctant in asking this question, but went on anyway with a deep breath. "What are... baby changelings like?"

"Baby changelings? Hmm..." he hummed, allowing his senses to wake up a little more. "Changeling larva, when they hatch from eggs, are like... I guess you could say small, fragile grubs. I mean really small. Tiny. Only little bigger than your hoof. They have such adorable faces though; like an adult changeling's, but smaller. Younger. Cuter. Probably not unlike a pony foal."

"That's what they're like? That's it?" wondered Persica aloud, her eyes turning to and setting on what she could see of the ceiling above. "Oh..."

Habeas hummed again and rubbed a hoof over his chin as a curious thought came to him. "Where did such a question like that come from, exactly?" he asked. Persica's eyes widened for a second before returning to their previous disposition.

"I was just... it was just a random question that came to mind, that's all," she stated. "I couldn't help but inquire before I had the chance to forget to ask it."

"Well, I'm always glad to answer you, no matter the time." Habeas yawned, stretching his legs out a little bit before resting them by his side. "If that is all, then... good night, Persica. May you have sweet dreams."

"Good... good night, Habeas," she said back. As the mare sensed him drift away, she laid there motionless for some time, thinking of the future. Thinking of what to possibly expect from it. It wasn't more than ten minutes before she unknowingly began to fall unconscious, but it was a long ten minutes to her.

Unbeknownst to Persica as her eyes finally shut, Habeas also fell asleep with a little unease plaguing his mind. Unease focused on something else important, but no less worrisome...

When Family Comes Together

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Apini Bee sat motionless in a wooden, cushion-lined chair that faced a large window in her house's living room; her wheel harness laying next to her in case she had to move. She was in the pony form she had made and disguised herself with for a great amount of time, that of a unicorn mare with a blue mane, yellow-colored fur, and an earthly-brown right eye, as the other was still red in texture. Looking out the window with a drooping face, her different-colored eyes were currently as dull as a doll's. She was in a state of passive anger. She was frustrated at everything in the world right now.

Most of all, perhaps, she was depressed.

Her last given mission from her queen, from just over a year ago, was to find and kill a renegade changeling named Habeas Brittle. It was only if she had the small chance to spy him living near where she lived. She did, she went after him as ordered by the directions, and she attacked him with glee she could not hide. She paid for it with a heavy, metal, farm-tool object that dropped on her above before she could deliver a killing blow. To bluntly state the experience, it utterly crushed her lower body; it mangled the lower portion of her exoskeletal and endoskeletal spine, and shattered her legs. Having managed to escape after it occurred, she had long since physically healed from the grievous injuries received, but her lower legs were still without feeling. She hadn't even attempted to move them in months.

Apini had to learn to get around with a wheel harness from then on, and it was a bitter mode of transportation. Her two children - an older, near-adult nymph named Bumble and a greatly younger, smaller nymph named Honey - were all that ever mattered to her, and she hated herself for having to let them see her this way. Were she to be thankful for anything, Apini would be so for how Queen Chrysalis had not yet given her another assignment, in the process most likely finding out about her disability, and in turn discovering her usefulness had come to an end. Whatever consequence that had the chance to follow she did not like to think about.

She still sat in the chair, her one red and one brown eye both gazing out the window to the streets outside, observing the many shapes and colors of the ponies who passed by her residence. Apini spent most of her days now doing this, and nothing else. Rarely, if she was feeling in an energetic mood, she would don her beekeeping gear and roll herself out to the beehives in their yard outside to collect their honey. It was her family's given job from the castle staff who knew them only as simple pony servants, and from the honey they gave away they received a fair amount of love for those who cherished its taste. Apini once did it with vigor and purpose, but most times these days it was her son who would do it for her. Her despairing state of unfettered, uncaring lethargy affected a great many things that were once normal and happy in the household. It even took its toll on her daughter, little Honey Bee.

"Mom, I drew a picture of us together," she would sometimes say, or "Mom, I finished reading a really hard book." Apini would glance in Honey's direction, give her a small smile, sometimes pat her on the head, and then proceed to look back outside the window as glumly as when she began. Honey was but a small infant when her mother received her crippling injury, but even the young nymph knew that she wasn't the same as she was before it happened.

As she stewed over her current situation, the sound of a hoof knocking against the front door went out. It was definitely loud enough to hear, but Apini was indifferent to it. A few seconds rolled by, and the knocking still went out. Since Apini didn't appear to want to move, Honey gladly went to the door herself, changing into her pony form as a precaution, and placed her ear against it's edge.

"Hellooo?" she sang out from her end.

"Hello!" came a happy, but strained voice on the other side. "Can you please let me in? I've got a lot of things in my hooves, and I'm not sure how much longer I'll be able to hold them..."

Hurrying to unlatch the lock, Honey opened the door for a big shape, who then came staggering in. His face, and most of his body for that matter, was covered by a mound of what appeared to be packaged items being gripped in one of his hooves, as well as several he was holding in a halo of magic above him.

He quickly started to place his items down on the ground a few feet away with a sigh of relief. Closing the door for him, it didn't take the nymph long to realize that the creature carrying the items was a changeling - a very, very odd-looking changeling, with a small horn growing from the top of his head, and long, sleek wings emerging from the base of his strong-looking, pink, shelled back. His eyes were of a dark greenish color, while his body itself was of a lighter shade. Finishing his piling of the objects, the changeling looked Honey's way, a look of apparent nervousness on his face.

"Listen, I know you may think a weird-looking changeling coming into your house with all of these presents may seem a little strange, Miss Honey Bee," he said. "But if you'll allow me a few seconds to explain, I'm Bombini Bee. And I am your-"

"Dad?" the little nymph finished for him with a tilted and inquisitive head, morphing from her pony form to her real, darkly-chitined form in a wisp of magical green flame. Her teal right eye and red left eye blinked hopefully. "Are you... my dad? I've written a lot of letters to him, and he wrote lots back to me too. The last one he wrote said he had a... 'surprise' coming for us. Are you... him?"

"Yes. Yes, it's me." The adult changeling's cheeks almost covered a part of his shimmering green eyes with how large his smile was. His possessions were hopelessly forgotten as he set his sight onto the daughter he hadn't seen since she was a minuscule grub. "It's me, and this time, I'm never leaving again."

Kneeling down after coming up to Honey's smaller shape, he extended his forehooves to the little nymph and pulled her close to him, wrapping them around her in a great big, warm hug, tears starting to form along the edges of his eyes. Through instinct, and sensing a jolt of familiarity with the feeling of his caring embrace, Honey grinned from webbed ear to webbed ear and closed her eyes as she savored it. Her eyes eventually opened when she only then truly realized something was quite off with her parent. "Dad, why do you look so... sparkly?"

He smirked, holding her back a little bit so he could take a long look at her beaming face and the mismatched-colored eyes that adorned it like a pair of pretty, precious gemstones. "It's a long story, dear. It would take me a whole evening to explain."

"Promise to tell me before I go to bed tonight?" she inquired, poking his shoulder playfully.

"I promise," he agreed with a kiss to her forehead, before lifting his own to the rest of the empty room when another thought came to him. "Say... where's your brother?" he himself asked. "For that matter, where's your mother at? Neither would leave you alone here, would they?"

"Oh, uh, Bumble's out shopping for Mom," Honey said, still keeping the happy look. "Mom's in the living room. I wonder if she saw you coming, since you're, ya'know..."

She put a hoof to her mouth and let it drift to his left ear in a secretive manner. "Undisguised."

"With what's happened, I don't think we'll need to hide for much longer..." he spoke back with a mischievous hint in his tone, earning another tilted head from Honey.

"Pff. What's that s'posed to mean?" she puffed humorously.

"Like I told you before, I'll explain everything later," Bombini replied. "For now, I think it is best if I speak to your mother. May you bring me to her?"

"Of course," Honey said, taking his smoother and larger hoof in hers and leading him across the corner to the living room, where both could see Apini was sitting in front of the window a few feet away. Standing where she was and motioning a her leg forward, Honey let her father go ahead. Though she had sensed his presence, Apini didn't even so much as turn her head to meet Bombini's when he approached. She only did when he got to her side, and though at first taken slightly aback by his utterly alien form, she quickly refocused her view to the panel of transparent glass.

"Hello, Apini. It's been a while..." he softly spoke to her. She didn't reply, but Bombini continued on. "It's me, heh. I, um... have some good news for you. For us."

Apini didn't look to be in the mood for receiving any news whatsoever, but still Bombini relayed it to her. "How do I put this in an easy-to-understand way... we're both free from the hive for however long as we wish. That's a pretty swell thing to hear, right?"

Slowly turning her head back to her husband, Apini had her jaw open slightly ajar. An eyebrow was also skeptically curled, as though not understanding him. Bombini's own expression was full of mirth, as were his words.

"With the revelation of how we can acquire as much love as we'll ever need without stealing it, all with the help of some ponies, the tyranny of Queen Chrysalis is no more. I talked with our new king, King Thorax, and he said I have full permission to come here. He said that I'm allowed to stay as long with you and our children as I want, and that we're free from any duty that had forcefully bound us to the hive. We're... we can be together, Apini! All of us! We can all be a family the way a family's supposed to be! No more me only visiting for a day or less every year-or-two, no more being apart from you. Just us. Isn't this great?"

As she heard his words, Apini's face slowly curled into more expressions that conveyed equal amounts of disbelief. The emotions she showed off were clearly a mixture of confusion and shock. At first keeping the slacked jaw and blank look of surprise for a few seconds longer, Apini's brow furrowed, her mouth closed, and she snapped her face away from her husband altogether, focusing it back on the window with a soured visage. The overjoyed look on Bombini's face also slowly vanished, not understanding why she was acting as she was now.

"Apini... what's wrong?" he asked. He tried to place a comforting hoof onto her shoulder, but she shrugged it off.

"Mom's been acting like this for a long time," the light voice of Honey spoke up from behind them both, making Bombini turn to her. "She's been like it since the accident."

"You've sent me letters letters describing it. I... I heard about how it happened," Bombini sighed, thinking back to the exact wording that talked about how a large cart had dropped on Apini from the supposedly careless hooves of workers who were lifting it; nothing more than a lie Apini had told them herself, so they wouldn't find out about her unsavory side profession. Apparently, her husband believed it now, too.

Bombini slowly left Apini's side when it became apparent that she wasn't going to say anything. Going back up to Honey, he looked down at his dear daughter with a more positive face.

"What do you want to do, Honey? I've got all the time in the world in my hooves now," he inquired, very much excited that he was going to spend time with the daughter he was once never able to do so with. "Want to play a game in the yard outside? Want me to read you a book? Oh! How about we open up some of the presents I brought!"

"Well, I was thinking that we wait for Bumble to get back home before doing something like that. We could... do one really cool thing, though..." the little nymph suggested, rubbing her hooves together in anticipation. "I've been putting together a one-thousand-piece puzzle of what's supposed to be an autumn tree over the last few days, but I've only got about eight-hundred-and-twelve pieces in it so far. A lot of pieces, I know, but it's... not enough yet."

"That sounds good to me, dear," he said, taking her hole-filled hoof and allowing her to lead him away, as Apini simply continued to passively watch the goings-on outside the window.

Bumble was currently in his typical pony form of a yellow-furred colt with a raven-black mane trailing down the back of his neck, his tail matching the color. Like his mother and sister, one of his eyes was red; but in his case it was the right one that had the color.

Right now he was pushing a cart full of items ahead of himself in a local supermarket near Canterlot Square. He had done many of his mother's chores and duties ever since she fell into her current state of misery. It was a challenge at first, but now that he was a young adult - almost full grown - he could do these tasks with greater efficiency.

Changelings like him didn't need food unless it had love in it. Since his family was in service to the Royal Sisters who ruled the lands of the ponies, who had plenty of chefs who made their food with just such an ingredient (along with what they got for the honey they sold), they had that part covered. What they didn't have covered were other needs, examples being paper towels, cleaning supplies, items for maintaining hygiene and all that. That was why he was here now, and that was what his shopping cart was filled with.

As he finished making his usual rounds with a final check-off on his shopping list and passed through the produce area with the cart, he couldn't help but hope he encountered a close friend of his who started working here less than a month ago; specifically in this section. She was an earth pony, and a smart, kindly one at that. She was someone who Bumble knew since he first started attending the local school in Canterlot on his mother's wishes years before.

Lo and behold, after a few minutes of trotting through the tight isles, he found her. A gray-and-red cap on her dirty blonde-maned head, and a work apron of a similar color over her waist, both displaying the store's symbol, Bumble Bee found Peach Blossom stacking some vegetables on a nearby shelf. She was a young pony of a light brown color with a more noticeable feature being her white-tinted muzzle. She was no longer a filly for sure, but definitely not yet an adult, just like him. Having been great friends for as long as a healthy friendship could keep, there was never a sense of hostility between the two. If something competitive was involved, there was certain to be a small form of rivalry between them in it, but it was always, always amiable.

Bumble snuck up on her without trying, getting less than three feet from her. Pretending to inspect a nearby tomato on the neighboring shelf she was working on, he chirped in without a moment to lose. "Oh! Hello, Peach Blossom," he said happily. "Fancy meeting you here."

"Bumble? Hey!" she welcomed back after instantly realizing who carried the voice, staring his way with a toothy smile on her face. "What're you doing here?"

"Ah, I'm just shopping," he said easily, looking back at and then placing the tomato back where he found it. "Ya'know... for my mom and sister."

"I see. How's she doing?" Blossom questioned. "Your mom, that is."

Bumble took a moment to think of the right words. "She's doing okay, I guess."

There was a small silence next, and the two youngsters spent it looking at one another with a sense of awkwardness in the atmosphere of their meeting. It only ended when Peach Blossom spoke again. "Hey, um... Bumble?" she inquired, moving another bundle of celery from the work basket to the shelf. "You know that movie that just came out that you told me you might want to see a week ago?"

"The Dragon and the Rose?" he asked. "The movie based off of both of our most favorite book we both ever read of all time?"

"Yeah, that one. Are you going to go see it?"

With this single question, and the next one that it was inevitably leading up to, the disguised changeling turned all of his attention onto Peach Blossom; the cart he was pushing temporarily forgotten at this point. "Why do you ask?"

"Um... just because I... kinda maybe sorta was planning on seeing it too. Just before our last year of school starts up," was Peach Blossom's answer. She continued as she tapped what appeared to be a nervous hoof against the smooth floor of the establishment. "I was... hoping that you would... maybe..."

"...Want to see it with you?" he finished for her, just before detecting a small hint of redness developing on her cheeks.

"Yeah, that," she said, smiling sheepishly. "Think we could? As friends, of course."

Bumble let out a hum as he pondered on it. "What time would you... be available to see it with me?"

"Unless my mom needs me to help around the house, which I doubt she will, I'm pretty sure I'll be free on Friday night at six o'clock," Peach Blossom was quick to say, the red leaving her face and returning to its plain, albeit cheerful shade. She hurriedly placed the last of the vegetables in the basket on the shelf before her manager had the chance to pass by and see her chatting it up with somepony and not performing her job.

"Six o'clock?" Bumble grinned excitedly with a raised eyebrow.

"Six o'clock," she confirmed with an equally delighted visage shining from her.

"Alright then. See you then, unless we see each other sooner," he chuckled.

"See you, Bumble!" Blossom waved goodbye to her friend as she watched him turn and start to walk away to check his items out.

He did just that. After purchasing them, Bumble returned home with the groceries, carrying them all with him in a halo of green magic. He trotted to his house a few blocks away and entered it, but when he saw the shape of his father in the living room playing with his sister, he had no words to describe how to react.

Of course he was surprised to see him, considering he was only a little older than Honey was now when he last laid eyes on him. They talked for a little bit, hugged, and shared brief stories of just a few of the events that happened between then and now. When a few minutes had passed by and he felt content enough to resume his duties, Bumble bid his father a temporary farewell and went to tend to his other parent.

He took out Apini's bed sheets that he had put into the house's dryer before he left to get groceries and carried them into her spacious room in a wicker basket. There he saw her, sitting at a dust-coated desk that she once normally used to write various things on, reading a book the older nymph quickly realized was one she had read at least a hundred times.

"Hi, Mom," Bumble greeted in a soft way, getting her attention. Apini turned his way and smiled weakly to her child before returning her view to her book. Bumble approached her at the pace of a snail with the basket of sheets in hoof. "You saw Dad when he got here, right?"

She slowly nodded, almost as if half-paying attention. "Mm-hmm."

"He looks pretty... different from what a changeling's supposed to look like, eh?"

She muttered something back with an amused smirk, her voice a tad throaty from the low, unintelligible tone she used. Bumble walked past her and to her big, wide, sheet-less bed laying in the center of the room, and started putting the covers over the white mattress it had. As he did this, he thought long and hard to himself.

Seeing his mother in this pitiful state, as he could no longer deny it was, was not a sight he took lightly. He despised seeing her in this way, and it made him feel absolutely rotten. She hadn't properly spoken in what felt like ages. Bumble wanted more than anything for his mother to tell him what he could do to remedy the situation she was going through, but she wouldn't respond to any of his queries directly. It frustratingly drove him to the point that he was willing to do anything. Anything to get his mother back to the way he remembered her being.

But, alas, he didn't know how to do it.

It wasn't more than five minutes before he was done making the bed for Apini. "Mom, I'm going to spend some time with Dad now, okay?" he spoke to her next, placing a hoof on her shoulder and looking at her always-weary face.

With small, dark bags under her eyes, Apini closed them, puckered her lips and shrugged, as though saying "Eh, knock yourself out, kiddo," and put a more positive expression onto her face to reaffirm the action. Smiling back, Bumble knew she wanted to have some more time to herself. Grabbing the now-empty basket, he walked over to the door and opened it. The instant he started to trot out, he stopped himself and looked her way again.

"Oh, and before I forget to ask, I'm going to see a movie with a friend on Friday night," he mentioned. "Is that okay with you?"

There was a good fifteen seconds of silence that came between Bumble and his mother before a proper response came. Apini let out a small titter through her closed mouth. "Mm-hmm."

Bumble closed his eyes with relief. "Thank you," he said quietly, before leaving the room in a similar manner. Apini watched him as he left her, then went to her thoughts.

Apini knew right off who this friend was. The only friend who her son ever seemed to collaborate anything with was that polite young pony, Peach Blossom. The daughter of Persica. The daughter of the mare whose husband she devoured all the love out of and left as a wretched husk all those years before. The mare who she almost left to the same fate and killed, a little over a year ago. Just thinking about her made the changeling's very soul fill with negative emotions, some aimed towards her, some aimed towards herself.

Deciding not to brood over these feelings, and instead wishing to make sense of all that was going on in the present, Apini let the emotions go with another deep, shaky exhalation of the dry air of her room. The first new image to come into her head then was her husband, Bombini Bee. Apini loved her husband as much as the day she first confessed her true feelings to him, and she knew deep down that he did too. He would exercise to the absolute best of his ability to earn the opportunity to see his family, even if the majority of these scarce visits were nothing more than the simple errand of conveying a message for Apini's next assignment, or checking up on her. Even with his shortcomings, even with his lack of appearance to guide their children as she did, even with the irritation she showed from all this, Apini felt in her aching heart that she didn't deserve him.

That's not to say she didn't feel some joy and pleasure in seeing him here now. And if what he said was indeed true about Queen Chrysalis no longer being the one in command of the changeling hive, however impossible it sounded, then he wouldn't be going anywhere anytime soon. She cracked a snicker of amusement to herself when she remembered what he looked like now, still not fully knowing how he, and supposedly the entire hive, achieved these new forms. Apini got up from the chair, hooked herself to her wheel harness and started to move toward the door as the freshened idea of not seeing his colorful face again became too much to bear, but that other intriguing thought of no longer having a queen to follow was indeed a ripened bit of news to dwell over. As was the rancid shortcomings of it she saw but chose to ignore for now. The future was beginning to show some promise, however little there was. Opening the door and leaving her room for the living room where her family had no doubt gathered, the wheel harness-bound changeling could only hope so much, after all.

But then again, hope was what got her into this sorry state of mind and body to begin with.

An Unwanted House Guest

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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...

Some Good News

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Quiet and stillness was the only thing to echo throughout the household long after night had fallen. No noise at all was made through the many rooms of the home. To the untrained eye and ear, it would seem that all was dead, or else asleep, as it should be at this time.

But not all was dead or asleep.

As the clock struck twelve, small shape, unseen in the pitch blackness, emerged from a hole located in a wall, behind the cabinet that held fine, fragile china dinnerware. Fully exiting it, and with apparent haste, the small shadow seemed to scurry over from the living area to the kitchen, leaving scratching noises in its wake as it traveled. Reaching the room, the first thing the being did was jump onto a chair at the table in a mighty leap, and then away, onto the nearby counter in a similar maneuver. It traversed the counter until it reached the edge where the fridge was positioned, and once it latched itself onto the fridge's handle, it pushed off, opening it fully. When that was done, it hopped back to the ground, standing in front of its now-lit entrance.

Had anyone been there to witness it, they would have seen what the boggart looked like in the fridge's light. He was no bigger than a large rat, rotund in girth, short of stature, and had light brown, wrinkled skin going along most of his body. His nose was long and pointed, and his mouth was filled with sharp teeth. Pointing out from holes in the clothing on his back were a pair of insectile wings that were much too tiny, atrophied and useless to allow him flight; somewhat resembling leafy maple seeds.

Covering the creature's form were various bits of clothing and attire he had filched in the past from dolls and other toys in the households it had once haunted, and where the apparel had been worn from its many years of use were sewn or patched up using stray bits of fabric. Over his body was a thick wool coat of a brownish tint that was a shade darker than his skin. Over his whitish-chestnut haired head was a black cap that was held down where it laid on his cranium with two thin strands of white shoelaces that also wrapped around his neck like a scarf. While the coat extended down enough to hide his midsection and knees, his thin and knobby legs were bare, but covering his feet were a pair of stolen doll shoes he had fiddled around with and cobbled into a more convenient shape for them.

Hopping into the fridge, the boggart set to work. Pulling out a pair of scissors from where they sat in one of his coat's pockets, among his other tools, he brought them up to a freshly-bought jug of unopened milk as though they were shears. Placing their sharp tips to the milk ring sealing the jug shut, he quickly snipped it loose and tugged the small, plastic band off, shoving it into his other, empty pocket afterward for later decoration of his lair. Putting his scissors away, he then unscrewed the lid of the jug and poked his ugly little face into it to quench his thirst.

Greedily drinking some of the milk until the taint from its foul fey magics had rendered it sour, the boggart finished his drink with a satisfied sigh, licked his lips, and screwed the lid back on over it. He jumped the fridge and closed it with a clap, then made his way to the pantry next. The fairy looked up to the handle, which was too far up to jump to from anywhere. He did not need to it, for with a flick of his wrist, the knob magically turned on its own and the door opened with a squeak of its hinges.

With supernatural quickness it climbed to one of the middle shelves of the pantry, where its long nose had sniffed out something sweet. Twitching a whisker, he spied a shape resembling a glass cookie jar in the dark, resting nearby. Going to the base of it, he hopped atop of it and placed his fingers on the lid of the jar. The boggart hoisted it off and casually tossed it from the shelf to the floor with a snigger, where it shattered to small bits when it inevitably landed. What the small fey being did next was pull out two cookies and messily devoured them, scattering crumbs everywhere as his teeth tore through their dry flesh.

His appetite sated, what the boggart did next was jump from the shelf to the floor below, landing as though his plump body weighed nothing. Leaving the pantry, his doll shoes crunched uncaringly over the broken shards of glass in his path as though they were thick boots plodding over loose bits of ice, crushing some of the smaller bits into powder.

Snickering maliciously, the creature left the kitchen and made his way back to his hole he previously emerged from. His small wing-appendages twitching in contentment, he approached it, but first took a final look at the current room he was leaving, making sure there no small treasures he wanted to filch just yet. Smiling, he soon turned about and fit his small, fat form through the hole, scurrying through the walls, back to its nest.

Persica sluggishly meandered toward the kitchen when morning came, passing by the two glass cases containing her late husband's and her own suits of armor from their monster-hunting days. Habeas had slipped out of the bedroom unnoticed sometime earlier, and she had only awoken after smelling something positively delicious from where she laid. She knew it had to be him, as he was quite gifted in the art of cooking. Habeas learned his skills from a cookbook he possessed prior to meeting her; the same book that he learned about other methods of gaining love, without having to steal it.

It wasn't a few more seconds before she came to the entrance of the kitchen. There he was, a spatula in hoof, his hips swaying side to side as he hummed a small song to himself, looking over the stove that had a pan containing three pancakes.

"Morning!" Habeas greeted merrily, catching sight of her from the corner of his eye. Judging from the brownness of the pancakes, he looked about done making his marefriend's breakfast. Persica bid a happy "Good morning, sweetie," back, and walked fully into the room.

"Where's Blossom?" she inquired next.

"She left for work about twenty minutes ago," Habeas answered, shifting the pan around.

"Nuts! Just missed her," Persica sighed aloud. She shook her head, but held a smile on it. She walked over to the fridge to get something out of it, opening it with a pull of its handle.

"I wouldn't drink the milk if I were you," the changeling warned after hearing it open, just in case she was going for it. "It's somehow gone very sour."

"Guess who did it," she muttered as her ears suddenly lifted, swearing to herself that she just detected the scant sounds of small feet pattering around briefly in the ceiling above. Shrugging it off and exhaling a deep breath, she took out some creamer, shut the fridge, and approached the active coffee machine they had on the counter. Pulling out a red mug from the cupboard above it, she placed it in front of the machine and filled it with the hot, brown drink most ponies craved in the morning.

"The lid of the cookie jar was also broken in the pantry. Don't worry, I cleaned it up," he also mentioned as the mare added some of the creamer to her drink.

Persica grumbled as she put down the creamer, swished around the contents with a spoon for a few seconds, and took her first sip of coffee. Her nose twitching, she set it down on the counter again and peered at Habeas. "Is there any good news?"

"There is good news, actually," he spoke after plopping the finished pancakes onto a plate and covered them in maple syrup from a nearby jar. He then brought it to the table, reaching for the paper he left there afterward. "Great news, in fact. You'll never believe what I read in the paper a few minutes ago..."

Persica could guess nothing to answer what it was he was talking about. Scooping the coffee cup back up into her hoof, she started over to where he was taking a seat. "What'd you see?"

Habeas smirked, his smile immense and radiant. "Queen Chrysalis, the queen who I fled from the hive to escape from... she's been dethroned. And the changeling hive has declared themselves to be allies of Equestria!"

Persica appeared to not know how to properly react to this sort of information herself, but her expression was still one of joy for him. Habeas continued as he looked back at the paper, and she grew closer. "You know what this means?" he asked her with a smile. "There's a big chance that I won't have to pretend I'm a pony when we're in public any longer. I might not have to change forms and go disguised all the time anymore! I can be myself."

Persica approached him with slow final steps and planted her lips onto his for a good long while when she got to him. She let out a gleeful hum before the kiss inevitably had to end and their mouths separated, leaving the taste of coffee on the changeling's mouth in the process. "That's spectacular news to hear, Habeas."

"We have a new king. He was once a drone named Thorax. Kind of like me," Habeas also revealed.

"The one we heard about a few months ago?" Persica asked. "The one living in the Crystal Empire?"

"The very same!" he smiled, looking to the front-page picture of the changeling king in the paper. "Though I must say, he looks a tad odd, even after apparently undergoing the metamorphosis I went through."

"He looks like a moose," Persica chuckled upon a closer examination, looking directly at the pair of horns on Thorax's head that were shaped like stag beetle mandibles. "At least my love bug's a handsome little devil."

Leaving his side, she trotted over to her own seat and picked up her fork after sitting down; ready to dig into her breakfast. "And what about you?" Habeas then decided to ask her, just before she could begin. "Do you have any sort of good news to share?"

"O-oh, um, no," she was quick to respond, putting the fork down and bringing the coffee cup back to her lips, swiftly downing all of it liquid contents. Placing the now-empty mug down on the table past her plate, she brushed some stray strands of her mane's hair from her face and gave him a shaky smile. Habeas hummed with a hint of skepticism aimed at her odd reaction, but deciding it probably wasn't in her interests for him to delve deeper, he coughed into his hoof and folded the newspaper back up.

"Well then... do you have any ideas on how to deal with the boggart?" he asked next, dropping the paper by her cup. Persica, glad to have the subject changed, was more than happy to answer after taking her first bite of one of the syrup-covered pancakes.

"I'm thinking of setting up a trap," she said in a hushed voice, just on case a third set of ears was in the room to listen in. "It'll have bait that will attract the little beast's attention like an ant to sugar, and that cage it will lay within will be a small, simple one made of iron. Fairies can't stand to touch iron without it burning them, and they can't use their magic while near it."

Habeas nodded once, his expression showing well that he was intrigued by her knowledge of the creatures. "Knowing you, I bet you'll nab it on your first try. But in the small chance of the opposite happening... what if it doesn't work?"

"If it doesn't, then I have more methods to turn to," was all she replied with, shrugging with a smile. "I'm sure this experience will be an interesting thing overall, to say the least."

When Bumble woke up that morning, he did his usual things at its beginning. That entailed taking care of some of the needs of his near-vegetative mother, making her some love-filled breakfast, bringing it to her, then making himself some. But as he left the kitchen after taking care of his dishes, he came upon a very strange sight that made him stop in his tracks.

In the living room stood his father, and nearby was Honey. Her horn was glowing pink, and Bombini appeared to be coaching her through something.

"That's it!" he cheered in a supporting manner. "Now, sum up all the love inside of you as best as you can."

"Am I doing it right, Dad?" Honey asked a second later after doing what he said.

"Yep!" he spoke. "Just feel it build up within you, and once you do-"

"What are you two doing?" Bumble spoke up, unable to contain himself. Honey, giggling, looked to her brother and grinned.

"Dad's teaching me to share my love," she said. "He said it's how he found out about solving our hunger problem. He also told me it's why he looks like that."

Bumble looked less than thrilled. He turned his stare to his father, and furrowed his brow. "Are you crazy?" he asked. "You do know that if a changeling gives up their love to another, they'll be practically starved to death in that one instant, right?"

He looked back to his sister again. "That's not how to solve the hunger problem, Honey."

"That's not true, as it turns out," Bombini said. "To make friends and share their love is the secret to everything a changeling will ever need. It's all about being the best you can possibly be around others, treating them with altruism, and receiving their earned kindliness and care in turn."

"That sounds idiotic," doubted Bumble. Lowering his brow and putting on a mischievously sure look, his father turned to Honey again.

"Honey, could you share your love with your brother, like I showed to you?" he asked.

"Okay!" she eagerly agreed, trotting closer to Bumble. Bumble's expression shifted to one of terror when she faced him, but he was unable to tell her to stop in time before she began with the process. Her chest glowing in a heart shape, Honey's smaller form hovered into the air a short ways, and a sudden, continuous beam of pink, ring-shaped love energy was expelled from her, and streamed into Bumble's direction. He shouted something to her, but was buffeted by the beam before the words could sensibly leave his throat and enter his sister's ears.

The beam ended a few seconds later, and as it did, Bumble realized that he now felt extremely full; as though he had just gorged upon a feast. When he opened his eyes, he could no longer see his sister in his field of vision. What he did see, and what made his heart pump rabidly in his chest with fear, was a small, chrysalis-esque, crystalline object laying on the floor of the household. He rushed up to it without a second to spare and wrapped his hooves around it, cradling the object close to him.

"What happened to her?!" he screeched to Bombini, staring only at the thing his sister had become. "What in the hay happened to her?!"

"It's fine. This is normal," Bombini calmly said back. "Just give it a few seconds, and-"

"My sister is trapped in a crystal... something!" Bumble continued to shriek in horror. "How do I fix this? What do I do?" The young changeling then turned his focus back to the chrysalis. "Honey? Honey can you hear me in there? I-it's going to be okay..."

Without warning, a blinding light covered the chrysalis, forcing Bumble to shield his eyes from it and step back. The light dissipated a second later, and when he took his hooves from his face, he saw an odd being standing before him.

It was Honey alright, but it didn't really look like her. Honey's small body, once dark and hole-riddled like any other changeling Bumble had witnessed, was now smooth and fine. Her chitinous body bore a more golden coloration to it, like honey, and now had a light green shell covering the wings on her back. Her left eye was still red, but her right one, once teal, was now amber in its tint.

"Hey, I look sorta like dad now!" the nymph said upon finishing her examination of herself. Jumping up and down in joy, she bounced around the room singing, chortling, dancing and prancing about in excitement as Bumble could only watch in dumbfounded bewilderment.

"I've got to show Mom!" Honey eventually shouted with glee after getting as used to her new look as she could for the moment, bouncing out of the room on her now-smooth and hole-less hooves, leaving Bumble and their father by themselves. Bumble turned to Bombini, only to see a smug smirk shining on his face.

"Believe now, son?" he said in a light tone. Bumble's brow lowered and he puffed out a stale breath.

"Don't call me that," he mumbled in return.

"What? 'Son'?" Bombini questioned, his smile beginning to disappear. "What's wrong with calling you that?"

"Just... because. Of reasons," was what Bumble said back, shifting his view past the living room and to the front door of the house; thinking of getting some fresh air to lighten his mood after the situation that he had witnessed. "I think I'm going to... go for a walk."

These words startled Bombini. "You end our conversation with that and walk away?" he inquired, walking up to Bumble as the young changeling was already heading for the door. "Bumble-"

"I need some air," Bumble cut in, clearly not in the mood to speak any longer. Shifting his form, he pushed the door open and trotted out before his father could stop him. Bombini wanted to give chase, but sensing the confusion within his son's mind, he halted himself from following and sighed, letting him go.

Bumble was no doubt still very much not used to having a father around. But Bombini wasn't going to leave them again. He never wanted to, and now, he never needed to. Soon thinking back to Honey and how Apini was probably taking the news their young daughter was sharing (and showing) to her, Bombini decided to go join them, still with thoughts on Bumble's reaction fresh in his mind.

A Night Out

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Friday had come at long last.

For almost fifteen minutes Bumble Bee waited at the front of the movie theater for Peach Blossom. With patience he stood there with only a minor fidget-or-two to keep him from boredom; his hoof tapping in a rhythmic pattern against the concrete ground until a familiar shape came trotting in his direction over the cobblestone street. He looked up when the figure came close enough, smiling when he saw just who it was.

"Hey, Peach," he greeted when she was mere feet from him. "You ready to see the greatest movie ever?"

"Psshh. We'll see if it's the greatest movie ever," she puffed and grinned. "And from that level of judgement we shall see if it surpasses the high level of action, drama, romance and so on from the book..."

It was when Peach Blossom finished her hammily-delivered sentence when Bumble noticed she was wearing something he hadn't seen her put on before. "What's that you're wearing over you neck?" he decided to inquire, pointing to the green, patchwork handkerchief tied there.

"This? Just a lucky bandanna," she answered, touching it with her hoof for a second before lowering it. "It's my mom's boyfriend's. He said he wanted me to take it with me when I was heading out of the house."

"For luck?" Bumble guessed as they began to walk to the entrance of the cinema together.

"Well, duh," she chuckled, pushing the door open for both of them. "Let's get some tickets before they sell out."

Going up to the ticket vendor they asked for two tickets to see The Dragon and the Rose, and were given them after dispensing the proper amount of payment. They then bought a big bag of popcorn at the concession stand several feet away to share, and merrily trotted away to the proper theater in the hall of the complex that was due to show the film. They scampered into it as the previews were flashing away on the big screen and found some available seats near the middle of the room, amongst a medium crowd of ponies who had also come to watch the film. As they sat down and got comfy, Blossom chanced a look Bumble's way.

His red right eye seemed to glow a little in the darkness of the theater, but it didn't look any manner of freaky at all. Peach Blossom thought it actually sort of made him look... cute, in a way. She turned away with the intent of not being caught staring at him a few precious seconds before the disguised changeling looked to her and did the same thing. He always loved having the chance at getting to sit beside Peach Blossom, and this time was no different.

As the final preview aired and vanished, the movie began in earnest. Peach Blossom and Bumble Bee munched and crunched away on the buttery and salted popcorn sitting in between them while it played out, and remained that way for a time they couldn't count. It was around the half hour-ish point when Bumble let out a mighty yawn and stretched his forelegs out.

He had been hoping to try this since first asking Peach Blossom to see the movie with him. With slow movement, he let his lifted hoof float just over Peach Blossom and slowly, carefully began to lower it behind her head.

So close... he thought to himself, taking deep, silent breaths as the sound of the movie went on around them. So very close... don't screw this up now, Bumble. You've been waiting for so long to do this... Don't you dare screw this up...

With held breath, he finally let it come to rest where wanted it to go; perfectly over and around Blossom's shoulder. Relaxing his tensed muscles, he let his foreleg stay where it was, undisturbed, and began to focus back on the movie. It didn't take two minutes for Peach Blossom to delightfully realize what he had done.

"Hmm," she smiled, closing her eyes for a second as she took in the warm feeling draped over her shoulder. "This movie sure can get intense, huh Bumble?"

"Just like in the book," he agreed. "Do you think they'll kill off Sir Dragonheart like in it, too? He's my favorite character."

"We can only hope not," she chuckled, leaning in a little closer to him. "But after all, this movie looks like a faithful adaptation. I wouldn't get my hopes too high."

With a playful 'hmph' from Bumble, the show continued on. A romantic moment happened between the leads, a fight scene went by, and several characters were axed off in steady succession, including poor Sir Dragonheart. It was as the movie was entering its climax and a fairly quick, but rather brutal event happened between the main protagonist and antagonist involving swords and a loss of limbs when Peach Blossom almost hugged Bumble in startled reaction, gasping in surprise.

"Too shocking for you?" Bumble asked a few seconds later, once it ended. Blossom looked to him and quickly shook her head.

"Oh, no," she whispered back, straightening her mane and regaining her composure. "I just didn't think they would make the scene happen like... that. Surprised is the word I would use."

He smirked. "It surprised me a little, too."

Both suddenly winced with the audience as another extreme scene went by on the big screen.

"As did... that," Bumble commented.

Friday happened to be the day that Habeas and Persica scheduled their date. They traveled to Canterlot an hour after Peach Blossom left for it. Two days prior the trap for the boggart had been placed, but it had not yet touched the bait. Persica said to give it time, and the results would show for themselves.

With what news had come out and the royal decree of the newfound alliance with the changeling kingdom, Habeas wanted to go not as his disguised form, but his true one. He passed through Canterlot's streets and into the posh restaurant with nothing more than a fetching red coat around his chitinous body and Persica by his side. Sure enough, other than the occasional sideways glance of pure curiosity, nopony witnessing the changeling in their midst seemed to mind him too much. Habeas soon began to hold his head high with pride.

The table they were given in the restaurant was a comfy little stall in a corner sitting under a large painting hanging on the wall that vaguely resembled what they could only picture as a tea cup; a genuine work by a famous surreal artist, Silverdoor Dalí. It was an impressive piece, but Habeas, and Persica even, found it to be a little bit too surreal to hold their gazes onto it for too long. They could scarcely make out the full details of what the painting was truly trying to represent.

They were given menus to look over, but Habeas simply could not help but take the occasional peek over from his slab of plastic and paper to look at Persica's beautiful face. He tried in vain to calm himself with what he was surely soon to ask of her, taking in the cinnamon aroma of the trio of candles lit inside of little holders between them for help with it. "So, my lovely Persica... what do you think you may want?" he softly cooed after around a minute has passed.

She put the menu she held down and balanced her chin on a hoof as she looked back at him and hummed. "I was thinking of having the romaine salad and garlic breadsticks that come with them."

"Mmm... good choice," Habeas licked his tongue over his mouth in agreement. "I was actually thinking the same thing, you know."

"Great minds think alike," the mare shrugged. When they finished looking over the menu and a sharply-dressed waiter approached, they both ordered the salad and breadsticks. It came to them in a short time, and the time they waited through for them was spent trading bits of small news concerning the newest happenings around town with each other, or complimenting how the other looked. When the meal arrived and they began eating it, they still did the same thing; only with mouths half full with food at times.

It was as they were finishing their meals when things went silent. Maddening stillness starting to ring in his ears, Habeas knew that had been waiting specifically for this exact, fragile moment, and it was already here. Persica was wiping her mouth with a white napkin when he took one last, deep breath before speaking.

"Um... Persica, I... I wanted to speak with you about something," he voiced to her, leaving his seat with trembling hooves and going to the edge of the table originally between him and the earth pony.

Persica could only look at her beloved changeling with a lowered brow. She knew Habeas long enough to know what he looked like when he was feeling nervous, and right now he was expressing the emotion in spades. "What is it, Habeas?" she asked. "You seem a bit... tense."

Habeas stuck his hoof into his coat pocket, feeling the treasure-keeping box held within. His heart pounded harder, and his eyes widened and then contracted. "Th-there's something I... I've been meaning to... to..." he tried to say, summing up as much courage as he could manage without gulping down the river of saliva building up in his mouth. With sudden thoughts of her somehow negatively reacting to his oncoming message causing his heart to pulse from his chest to his throat, his words became lost to him in one, horrid instant. Habeas' cheeks flushed to a pallid green color as his stress once more got the better of him.

"Something... what?" asked the mare again, truly wishing to know what he had to say.

"I-I-I-I..." he stuttered like a fool, growing more and more panicked in his visage by the second. "I... I need to... to gotothebathroomberightback..."

Taking his hoof out from his pocket, he turned about and hurriedly trotted off with his troubled expression still painted over his face in a way more disconcerted and baffling than the surreal painting on the wall, leaving Persica alone at the table. She watched him leave as abruptly as he stood up, and let her ears droop in confusion. Inhaling a deep breath and sighing to herself, she plopped her idle hooves upon the smooth surface of the table, waiting for his imminent return and stewing over what might of triggered the queer phrasing of his rather simple statement.

Habeas went into the stallion's bathroom to the sight of it being empty. Going to the first sink that came into his sight, which laid in front of a mirror with four others, he turned the right nozzle sharply to the left and filled it up with water until it was filled up to the brim with the cool liquid.

"Stupid, stupid, stupid!" Habeas splashed a hooffull of cold water into his face as he grumbled the word three times over, his wing-like tail twitching twice in vexation. Taking a nearby paper towel from the dispenser, he dried his now-wet face off and looked at himself in the mirror. The only words to describe how he looked like was shaken and embarrassed. As he should feel after that mess-up. "Why can't I do this? It's just a simple question! You've known Persica for a while! You love her, Habeas, you dolt! And she loves you! She'll say yes. Why can't you just realize that?"

His rage at himself dying down, he sighed. Unplugging the sink and allowing the small pool of water to flow down into the pipes awaiting them, he tossed the dampened paper towel into the trash. He looked into the mirror again and started to straighten himself out until he looked presentable once more, but his face was still filled with the greatest of uncertainty. "What if I can't do this?" he asked himself next, before sharply shaking his head in utter disagreement over the words he just spoke. "No, I can. I can. I've just got to try it out another time, soon. It will be soon, and I will be able to do it then..."

He began to exit the bathroom after making sure he was set. "It won't happen today, but it will happen soon," were the final words he said to himself before his and Persica's table came back into his sight. He walked up to it as Persica turned her head his way, noticing he looked much better and adjusted than he did before leaving.

"Is everything okay?" she inquired when he was close enough for her not to raise her voice.

"Yeah... yeah, I'm fine," Habeas quietly said back with a loving gaze aimed her way, his chance gone, but no longer despairing over it. Sliding back into his seat, he noticed a dessert menu now laying in front of him that had must have been given to the table sometime after he rushed off to the restroom. "Have you thought about ordering dessert, Persica?" he spoke after getting himself situated.

"Oh, yes." She quickly nodded her head with a smile, her tongue licking over lips in an anticipating way. "I've been thinking about getting the chocolate cake they have. It looks positively scrumptious."

"Chocolate cake? As in a cake made from chocolate?" Habeas asked her, lowering the dessert menu from his face to look at her in a most curious, if not confused way. "I thought you weren't a big fan of the flavor. I could swear you were going to order the peach cobbler, dear. They have that here, you know, and it looks absolutely divine. Incomparable to the cobbler made back at the farm, but still."

"I know it does. It's, uh... just a little taste for the stuff I think I have right now. A harmless, little taste," she grinned sheepishly. Brushing a small strand of her mane's hair from her good eye, she grinned. "It's nothing major, so don't worry about it. It's nothing important at all."

How she phrased it only served to pique Habeas' interests further, and the changeling rubbed a hoof over his chin. "So it's like a... craving, then?"

"N-no, nothing like a craving," Persica immediately denied. "I'm only in the mood for something different."

"Alright... then." Habeas said, putting his menu down now sooner than he had lifted it. "Chocolate cake it is."

The movie had ended as night was falling and the two ponies exited the theater with satisfied feelings. It was a decidedly great film, and they couldn't help but keep chattering to themselves at how epic it was.

"I still can't believe how awesome it looked when Sir Dragonheart took out Dark Lord Shadis' top two servants before he died from his wounds!" Bumble spoke, throwing a series of punches to the air.

"And don't forget Rose Thorn," Peach Blossom mentioned, casting her thoughts back to the main character of the movie. "It was so cool how she was able to barely defeat Shadis after he cut off one of her legs!"

"Ehh... there was a lot of blood in that scene..." Bumble stuck his tongue out in a slightly disgusted manner, and Peach Blossom joined in on the expression with a loud "Bleck!" and a burst of laughter from both ends. The amused chortling soon grew quiet, and they traded warm smiles to one another. Blossom tapped her hoof on the ground and straightened the bandanna around her neck out before putting an end to the silence that had been built up.

"I... hope we get the time to do something like this again, soon," she said. "With our last year of school coming up, it might get a little tough to plan another trip out."

"You said it," he sadly sighed back, looking out to the dark streets of Canterlot and the few ponies who now walked along them. "It'll stink if I'm unable to get to spend more time with you, Peach. I love getting to spend time with you, whenever I can get it."

"Hey, don't make it sound so... mushy." Peach Blossom playfully punched his shoulder, snapping him out of his melancholic tone. "You know how much I hate it when you get mushy. Now, care to be a gentlecolt and walk this young lady home? My mom's probably not going to be done with her date until later."

"I would be glad to," Bumble agreed with a large grin, rubbing a hoof over the place where she had lightly slugged him as though she had thoroughly bruised it. Straightening his disguised body up proudly, he marched right to her left side. Both locking a foreleg together, they set off from the theater like a young married couple heading off on a walk through a park.

The Albatross

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All Apini Bee could ever hear anymore were the voices. All of them. All of the voices of those she had murdered in the name of her Queen. The ones whom she slayed without pity or remorse. The ones she murdered in cold blood. And all their horrid, accursed wailing centered into her ears without pause. Without stop. Ceaseless. Endless.

Apini could hardly stand it anymore.

All she could ever see in any passing pony, in the presence of her children, and now her husband, were their glares. And they all glared at her incessantly. They knew what she had done to save herself and her budding family, and they hated her for it. She knew it. She knew it, for it was all she ever saw in their eyes. She felt like she had an albatross wrung around her stiff neck for all to see, and they could see it well.

But their observing eyes were not the worst to witness her like this. It was the eyes belonging to him. The last pony she had ever murdered, however indirectly it was, would always be there at the fore of the voices' incursion. And all he ever did was stare at her in silence. Silence as baleful as the loudest crackle of thunder in the middle of a storming night. Damnable silence that scraped across everything about her like rusted nails, tore through her mind with razors and talons, gnarled very soul and drove her mad.

She was going insane. Apini knew this fact well. She was going irrevocably insane. And there was nothing she could do to stop it. Nothing she could hope to do to rid herself of the ever-stalking, tormenting Furies that were the apparitions of her victims; him always lurking at its front. And hope was not there with her to give her even a single, minuscule ribbon of comfort. And because of it, she had nothing to turn to. Nothing to stop the unbridled agony of that one pony's piecing gaze.

Apini wanted him to go away. She wanted him to leave. She wanted to throw him out, to hurt him again, to plead for his exit from her memory when all else failed... anything to stop the accursed staring. Tears would fall from her eyes. Wet snot would leak from her nostrils. Drool would drip in thick, muddy droplets to the floor below at times, and still he would sit there with his bland face aimed at her like the tip of a sword positioned over her heart.


Apini would sometimes threaten him with the violence she showed him in life, but he still failed to depart, much less flinch. And neither would the voices that followed him like a persistent choir. They called out to her with all the soothing melody of a flogging whip lashing at her chitinous flesh, or a knife scratching over a chalkboard. They wanted her to join them in wherever it was they laid now, worms gnawing at what little was left of their dust-bound bones. They wanted her blood. And they deserved this of her she thought, but would never admit.

Blood for blood they called out in unison whenever she cared to listen to their calls. Blood for blood. Blood for blood. Blood for blood.

It was like a chant that served only to drive Apini that much more over the slippery slope that her psyche had devolved into. All she had ever done to earn this was for the hope of finally being accepted for what she was by her hive, beyond this accursed red eye that got her cast out to begin with. Only too late did she discover that these unspeakable deeds were all performed in vain. All for nothing. And the consequences of these forsaking actions were something she had to live with for the rest of eternity.

For the rest of eternity... That statement alone was a worse nightmare than any dream she experienced, and what made it more wretched was the fact that it was the reality she lived in. Than the reality she had to live in now, but would never- could never accept. She woul-


In that one brief instant a new voice spoke her name, coming forth with unparalleled vividness through the other ones. The other voices stopped in its wake and faded away. The image of the stallion who stared vanished. Everything went still, and Apini was returned to reality. She sucked in a deep breath and took a second to recognize the voice before putting her hooves to her wheelchair's wheels and making it spin about, she turned to meet her visitor.

It was Bombini. The door creaking as he pushed it open fully, he slowly walked up to his wife from it in a slow stride.

"Hey, Apini," he spoke in a happy tone. "I'm going to take you for that walk now I talked about earlier, okay?"

She didn't respond. Instead, after doing nothing for a few seconds, she sighed and turned her head away from his. Bombini stepped closer to her as she did this, and his mirthful visage began to shrink at the sight of it.

"Apini... you know why I'm doing this," he went on, now more serious in his pitch. "Honey told me you haven't been outside for a while. I'm just going to... take you for a stroll around town. It'll be a pleasant walk through the city. Are you alright with me doing that?"

Of course, Apini still chose silence as opposed to answering him, instead casting nothing but a sarcastic glare his way. Bombini let out a hum that did well to vocalize his small displeasure with her attempts to ignore him. Circling around the wheelchair, he grabbed onto the handles sitting behind it and he started to wheel her out of the room.

Disguising themselves as ponies when they left, if only for Apini's sake alone, the walk carried on for almost an hour. As both of their children were away at school, it left just the two of them to enjoy it. 'Enjoy' being a more operative term that Bombini at least tried to experience, if even that. Apini was in no mood to revel in the journey around the city, even as she felt the delightfully warm rays of the sun shine down on her body and fresh air enter her lungs. The female changeling's forelegs were folded and her head was held low, her face twisted into a childish pout.

They strolled around the city and eventually went through the park. Bombini pushed his wife's wheelchair on and on, not stopping for a second unless an interesting sight came up, and one such instance was when they went across a small bridge overlooking a little round pond. Swimming in the waters below were some ducks.

The three mallard ducks that could be seen - two brown-tinted females and a single drake with a grayish body and a glossy bottle-green head - swam around in circles below, as though waiting for something. They were each quacking merrily as their webbed feet pushed their buoyant forms around from under the water, nearly as though they were motors pushing miniature boats. When they eventually took notice of their newest visitors' shadows looming above, they all looked up expectantly to their equine shapes in a fairly inquisitive way. Their calls stopped for a second, only to start again moments later.

Reaching into one of the green saddlebags he wore for the journey, Bombini pulled out a transparent, ziplocked bag filled with the crumbs of bread heels he picked up from a bag of bread in the kitchen back at the house, and put a small pile of the stuff into one of his hooves. He had never really fed animals before - the closest thing to it was feeding love energy to freshly-hatched changeling grubs when it was his shift in the nursery back at the hive under the domain of Queen Chrysalis. If anything, he felt as new to the experience as a pony foal. He dealt with the matter maturely though, and so turned to his wife first before doing anything else. "Apini, care to feed them with me?" he asked her kindly and with a smile, extending his filled hoof her way. "I hear it's fun to feed ducks in a manner like this."

"Mmf," she mumbled dryly, accepting the torn-up pieces of bread. With a seemingly heavy hoof she tossed some of the breadcrumbs she now held to the water below, and they landed in it in a way that scattered a few ripples over its clear surface. All quacking quite rapidly in mutual happiness, the three ducks paddled their webbed feet over to the stuff in speedy fashion and began to devour them with beaks that seemingly vibrated in the drink as they grabbed at and swallowed the bits. The two changelings watched them in silence.

"Cute, aren't they?" Bombini soon broke the silence with a question. He sighed after a few seconds as it became apparent that his wife wasn't intending on responding to him properly. She held her gaze onto the birds with a dull visage, conveying nothing but boredom and disinterest. "Apini, please say something."

She still said nothing. Her eyes closed and she lowered her head while the ducks below finished their meal and went back to swimming about, making more quacking noises. Walking behind the wheelchair again, Bombini placed his hooves upon either of her shoulders and thought of what to say next, one exceptionally large thing coming to his mind.

"Apini... dear... I'm sorry." His words were filled with only sorrow. "I'm sorry that I wasn't able to stay and help you raise our children. I'm sorry that I wasn't able to be there with you when you had your accident. And I'm sorry - more than I can ever say to you - that you had to deal with all of this by yourself. But please... please, say something to me. Anything."

Apini's eyes opened again and she decided to look over her shoulder to her husband and the worried face he wore. Bombini's expression looked as sincere as could possibly be. But Apini knew, somehow, it wasn't. He was lying to her. He wasn't sorry. No... no he was downright glad she was this way. He wasn't here now just because they had a new, more lenient king. He was only here because he knew what he was coming back to. A crippled wife with a will that had long been dissolved. Children that had a new figure to look up to with this so-called 'love sharing' he knew.

With these horrid thoughts swelling up within her head Apini snapped her head away from Bombini in a disgusted manner and shook his hooves from her shoulders. She closed her eyes again and kept them that way, intent on not speaking a single word to him. Bombini, sighing, knew what she wanted him to do. "Let's go home," he spoke, his tone downtrodden.

He turned the wheelchair from the bridge's edge and set it back on the path. As they began to move again, Apini, with a twinge of what she sensed was regret, thought of her husband's prior apology and whether or not her take on it was true, or just some crazed, paranoid figment of her mind. But either way, if he was truly doing all this for that reason or otherwise, Apini still felt like she deserved it. She deserved all of it, and worse.

And somewhere, somehow, that wretched pony who died all those years ago, who ceaselessly stalked her everywhere she went, was watching her once more.

Due to his classes ending a while before his younger sister's, Bumble returned home first, alone. When he walked up the steps to the door of his house, he pushed it open and was greeted by the sight of his father pacing about in the living room, reading a newspaper that floated in front of him with the aid of his magic. When he noticed his son he stopped and faced him properly.

"Hello, Bumble," he said as he folded the paper up and laid it upon a nearby counter, trying to put on as best a smile as he could make in spite of the day's events. "How was your day?"

"Good. Where's Mom?" Bumble inquired back quite bluntly, closing the door behind himself and discarding his backpack, setting it down to the side.

"In bed sleeping, I suppose," replied his father. "We went on a walk today, but she didn't seem so... enthusiastic about it. No matter where I took her, no matter what I tried to have us do together, she only wanted to... ignore me. As soon as I got us home she rolled herself to her room and hasn't come out since. To be honest, I don't know how to feel right now about it..."

He started walking into the kitchen, followed by Bumble. As he made his way to the table located there, Bombini motioned to a sandwich on a paper plate sitting on one side of its flat, wooden surface. "I made you an egg salad sandwich for lunch, for when you got back. Honey told me yesterday that they're your favorite."

Bumble looked at the food suspiciously as Bombini sat down on the chair resting on the opposite side of the table. "You put your own love into it, didn't you?" he soon questioned, staring back at his father.

"Yes," he replied. Bumble eyed the sandwich that much closer for a few seconds longer, and still continued it as he took his own seat. As though cautiously studying the meal, he poked at the bread's wheat surface with a hoof a few times before lifting it and taking a slow bite from it. He didn't seem perturbed in the slightest by what he tasted, and soon swallowed. "Back to the events of today... you and Mom didn't have much fun around Canterlot?" he asked his parent.

"Basically. Your mother was so very... ugh." The elbows of his forelegs coming up onto the table, Bombini held his face in his hooves for a few moments. "She's difficult, I'll say that. It's nearly as though she doesn't wish to make even the slightest attempt at enjoying herself."

"She's been like that a little bit for Honey and me, too," Bumble said, taking another bite of the sandwich and chewing it slowly. "Ever since she got back from the hospital after her accident. I don't think I've seen a genuine smile come onto her face in months. She's never spoken for the longest time. I just... I don't know what to do about it."

Bombini's face remained in fragile stillness as he heard this. "That accident was... really that bad, wasn't it?"

"The doctors said she would never be able to walk again. I think that might be just one of the big parts of it."

Looking down, Bumble went back to eating his egg salad sandwich as silence came about the kitchen, the sound of him chewing being the only noise to overtake anything. Bombini spent it deeply mulling over the events of the conversation. And as he started to form a plan that made his now-drooping ears lift in renewed hope, another had already rooted itself within his brain. "Bumble," he spoke again.

"What?" his son responded, just before he could finish off his sandwich.

"There's something I've been wanting to try, and I think you might be able to help me learn how to do it," continued his parent. "I'd love to start harvesting the honey from the beehives myself. It'll give you more time to do the things you want, or maybe get a job of your own that isn't so home-bound, and it'll give me a chance to... act more like real father."

One of Bumble's brows lowered at this, almost skeptical in its form, and he took a final bite of the remaining piece of his sandwich. After fully devouring it, he tossed away the paper plate in the trash. "Well, if that's what you really want to do, I can show you the ropes. But be warned: in this profession, bee stings hurt when you're not careful."

"Excellent!" Bombini cheered, his hooves clapping excitedly together. "Eh, about the part where you said you'll help me, anyway. Can we start now?"

"Um... sure," Bumble agreed, leaving his seat. Exiting the kitchen, he started to leave to get the beekeeping equipment, and Bombini accompanied him in a happy little trot, pride filling his mind.

Dealing With Supernatural Pests 101

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As Persica could plainly see as she worked in it, the garden was still in poor condition. Little of the contents residing within it had not yet withered, giving it a poor look. The lettuce seemed to have suffered the least of all the vegetables in the garden this day, and since this morning, Habeas and herself had decided to collect as many of them as they could.

All-in-all, a long, irksome week had passed, but Persica remained holding her head high through it. She found this job of ridding her home of the boggart to be just the fix she needed to keep her mind off of a certain other matter, if one were to consider the dark secret she remained keeping from her dear changeling, Habeas.

The trap she had set and baited for the boggart from within their house was a small contraption of deceptively simple making, being a small iron cage decorated with enough cloth and newspaper around it to keep even one of a sharp mind from instantly realizing its true intention, and containing a lure in the form of an old, silver earring she owned. The horrid activities of the small fey being began to pick up no sooner than she had set down her device, though Persica reassured Habeas that it would all end soon.

"It's been a week, now. It... it will notice it, right? The trap?" The changeling decided to speak up his question, as a long silence had dropped between them as they set most of their focus on gathering.

"Yes. But that's the point," Persica said, smiling his way as she cut off another head of lettuce from one the ground. "By making it look inconspicuous, it won't easily realize it's actually a trap when it does find it. And when it unwittingly walks into it... snap."

"That's... a pretty clever method to depend on," Habeas responded as he loaded his current catch into the cart waiting on the side of the garden, wiping some of the dirt he acquired from it onto his handkerchief. "."

"As I've said before, boggarts are clever," Persica reminded him. "Exceptionally so. What they lack in actual intelligence, they make up for in cunning. Devious cunning. You have to outplay a boggart to catch one."

"I must admit, this whole boggart-catching business has to be one of the most troublesome things I think I've ever experienced." He let out a warm chuckle. "I don't think I have anything I can compare it to."

As Habeas moved through the garden to grab his next bunch of lettuce, his head lifted again; an image striking him. "You know... I think I actually do have an idea on what I can compare something like this to," he smiled to Persica, almost cheerfully.

"And what would that be?" Persica inquired with a low stare aimed his way, honestly curious to what his comparison would be.

Habeas' transparent wings fluttered briefly from his shelled back with a light buzzing sound before the wing casings covered them once more as his mind raced back. "This whole boggart business sounds nearly as troublesome to solve as... as forming a discussion with my older sister, Cert. Yeah, that's it..."

His head went back to the ground as he reset his attention to the lettuce sitting before him, but to this, Persica's own instantly raised upward; at least when she properly registered his words. "Sister?" she asked, a hoof brushing back some strands of her mane's hair from her face. "You have a sister?"

Habeas stopped what he was doing looked her way with a nod. "Well, I have a few siblings," he stated with a shrug. "Five of them, in fact."

"You never mentioned them before." Persica's brow remained lowered for a good ten seconds. "Sorry if I consider it a bit odd. Do you... not look on them very favorably?"

"No, no. Eh... let's just say we all had a distant relationship to one another. But that's not to say we didn't spend a lot of time together as grubs and nymphs." He sighed, shaking his head and smiling in reverie. "Being in the hive, two individual changelings rarely ever had a chance to see one another unless they worked close to one another or a celebration was going on. But that's how our system worked. Just not in my favor, of course."

He exhaled another long, deep breath. "You know, I don't think I had a real, real conversation with any of my family members since I left the hive. I never even knew my parents. The only one I really had any touch with at that point was my youngest sister, Quo. As far as I know, she's still living with it. They all are, probably." Realizing he had allowed his face to go rather glum, the changeling let out another toothy grin. "It's a good feeling, don't get me wrong Persica. It's good since Chrysalis was deposed and all that. The hive can only get better, now."

"Huh..." Persica gave a long, pensive stare his way. "Do you miss them? If so, we could always try to invite one or more of them over."

"I miss them all a fair bit," he said, exhaling a long-drawn breath in reverie of their faces he remembered from his youth, eventually turning his own Persica's way. "If we ever get the chance, inviting them over sounds... rather nice, actually. I'm sure they have time on their own hooves. It's not like each of them left the hive like I did to go on some wacky adventures or anything."

"Then it's a plan." Persica cast Habeas a nod of agreement. "Once we rid ourselves of this fey pest, we can most certainly-"

Persica was interrupted by a small, but noticeably sharp snapping sound, originating from the house. The abrupt noise echoed from the inside of it with the tenacity of a cricket chirping from afar, but the impact of a crack of lightning. As Habeas came to grips with it he found himself staring back at Persica, and the first thing he noticed was that her once plainly-happy visage was now positively beaming, and on her lips was a grin that slowly widened.

"That was the trap," she spoke, her voice a brisk whisper. "That's the sound of it... going off. Hurry! I think we caught the creature!"

Dropping what she had, Persica raced from the garden to the house with all the manner of quickness of a fox chasing a mouse. She burst through the door with just enough care in her motions to turn the handle and push it open instead of busting it down with sheer force. Habeas was a few feet behind her the whole way, and by the time he finally reached her still shape, she was peering into the already-opened cage. Her expression slowly vanished as he grew closer to her, and the mare voiced the reason why soon after.

"There's nothing in it. Not even the earring," she grumbled, closing her eyes and inhaling a deep breath as her excitement was crushed. Habeas tapped on his chin with a hoof as she turned her head away and then approached the cage. Feeling agog, he decided to take a peek inside the disguised trap for himself. While at first he, too, detected nothing, a small thing - resting in the dark back corner of the cage - came into his sights.

"Wait, I think there's one thing," he stated. Using his magic, he levitated the piece out of the cage and into his open hoof. Hearing him, Persica looked over her shoulder and saw what he had acquired.

As both Habeas and Persica could see, it looked like a minuscule roll of white paper with a dust-coated rubber band wrapped around it, keeping it in its current shape. Picking off the band and setting it aside, Habeas unfurled the tube, revealing it to indeed be a piece of paper of a rectangular shape. Upon it was some writing, drawn in what he thought of as being from a pencil.

"It's a... note?" questioned the changeling.

"Let me see that," Persica spoke. Habeas handed the paper to her and they both looked over what laid upon its surface. Indeed it was a note, albeit a poorly-written one at that. At first it seemed hard to read, as most of the letters were crooked or spelled backwards. But in spite of that, the message it conveyed was understandable enough, if just barely.

Der pesky ponys,
Im Gunter Snagknot. Im the boggart living with you and Ive seen you trying to cach me.
Stop it.
Dont stop, and I make things wors. Very, very much wors.
So wors that youl wish I went bak to wat I did befor. I liv here now, I do wat I want.
Gunter Snagknot

That was where it seemed to end, but upon a quick glance, both Habeas and Persica could see there was more. Below the writing was what looked like a hasty red crayon scribble of a small circle that seemed to represent a head, along with two triangles on either side of the circle that acted like pointed ears. It was evidently made to look fierce, as the head bore a wicked, fanged sneer upon it. It was hard to tell if that was truly the case though, due to it looking as though it was created by a young child.

Habeas hummed, thinking hard on what his next question would be. "Persica... what happens now?" was what it became.

She bit her lip. "It knew how to outwit my trap, and this little threat and taunt it left behind tells me how it did. That most likely means it's been captured in one like this before, or at least learned how to work around it. Either way, it's wizened to it." Persica let out an audibly low mumble, which Habeas took as being of not of pure annoyance, but of hard, cold thoughtfulness. "I’m going to have to try another method to catch it. And if it outsmarts that one, then I'll try another one after that. Don’t worry, there’s more than one way to cut a peach..."

Talking to herself in a voice too low for Habeas to hear, she began to walk off into another room. Habeas, wanting to help her in any way he thought would be possible, decided to join her. While he followed behind her, he began to rethink at just how much of a nuisance this little creature was going to become.

He remained dwelling on it when his eye was caught by a picture sitting on a counter beside the base of the stairs. His attention gained, he stopped in his tracks and took a good look at it. It was a photo of Persica and a handsome stallion standing side by side, who Habeas had by now known was her late husband, Chantilly Cream. He stared at the picture for a minute with an interested expression shining on his face and an important question rolling around through his mind. He only broke his focus on the thing when he decided to shift it onto Persica, who was getting herself a glass of water in the kitchen. Filling his lungs with a deep, but sure breath of air as Persica took her first sip of it, he approached her in a slow pace.

"Persica... I need to ask you something."

"Shoot," she halfheartedly responded.

Habeas cleared his throat. "Have you... ever thought about revealing to Peach Blossom the fate of her father?" he spoke her way, his tone full of nothing but sincere inquisitiveness. Putting down her glass after registering his words, Persica looked to him with a surprisingly calm mien, knowing right off what he meant by this.

Peach Blossom, for her entire life up to this point, had been unaware of her mother and father's monster-hunting profession before they settled down on this peach farm, nor the terrible truth behind how Chantilly Cream truly passed. She even thought that the armor and weapons they possessed and displayed indoors were nothing more than old heirlooms. Habeas continued, "The boggart brought it up in my head. It may not be my place to mention it, but I earnestly believe she's old enough and mature enough to handle it," the changeling said. "And in my own opinion, it's better to tell her than keeping it a secret forever."

"Yes, to answer your first question, the subject's crossed my mind from time to time," Persica mumbled, blinking several times while fondly thinking back to the times she spent with her husband in days long since passed. "She is old enough to know, that much I can assure, but I don't think that now is the best time for such a revelation. It'll be soon, just not now."

"I understand," Habeas nodded. "I just... I only realized it a few seconds ago."

"So you might have. And by the look on your face, you feel worried asking me this." Persica managed to form a small smile on her lips, knowing good and well how her coltfriend's mind worked. "I'm glad you brought it up. I've had a lot of stuff going on in my head, but now that you mention it... I should start thinking about it more."

"We should get rid of the fairy haunting our house first before that though, wouldn't you say?" Habeas decided to suggest.

Persica lifted her glass back to her mouth and ingested some more of the cool, refreshing water down her parched throat. "That too."

Peach Blossom stacked another apple onto the pile she was tasked with making, completing the small pyramid of sorts that rested on a quaint podium near the center of the produce section of the store. School may have started, but she still had her work days. It was mostly on weekends that she labored here now, but sometimes weekdays, like this one, required her to take the afternoon shift. Ever the determined young mare, with sights set in a future she could attain with aid from hard-earned money, she worked on with the most intense of vigor.

"And just one... more... ah," she smiled as she set the final apple at the very top, having had to use a small two-step ladder to do so. "And just so."

Upon making sure it was stable, she stepped down from the ladder and surveyed her handiwork. As she looked upon her grand piece of temporary art, she noticed the sound of somepony's hooves walking on the ground behind her. However, she paid them little mind, simply thinking them to be just another customer passing by to get at a shelf. What happened next seemed to disprove this thought, though.

"Well, hello again m'lady. What a pleasant coincidence it is to run into you here." A sudden, familiar, and highly exaggerated voice entered Blossom's ears from somewhere nearby. Her head lifting and ears perking as she came to the realization that the greeting was aimed at her, she spun about and met a sight she hardly thought she would see this day.

“Bumble?” Peach Blossom gasped, her disbelief quickly transforming into happiness of a high variety. Indeed it was Bumble, but there was a dry mop in his hooves and he was wearing store attire closely matching hers. “What're you doing here? And... why are you dressed in a store uniform?”

“I work here now!” he smiled, glee ripe in his tone as the sweet and ready fruit Peach Blossom had just finished stacking. “Because my dad came back and started working on the beehives we own, I have a metric ton of time on my hooves. At first I had no earthly idea on what I should do, but then it hit me. I remembered that you worked here, and I decided it might allow us to spend a little more time together if I were to... join up.”

"Wait, wait, waitwaitwaitwaitwait... Let me get this straight." Peach Blossom stepped toward him until their chests were practically touching. "You decided to apply here just so you could work alongside me?"

He murmured a small laugh. "And maybe earn a little cash while I do so..."

Peach Blossom gave a playful punch to his shoulder. "You sure do like making surprises, don't you?"

"Do I? I sure do." Bumble failed to withhold his visible glee. It wasn't to last though, as Peach Blossom's view slowly changed from him to something in the background. Her face having curled into one of realization and apparent horror, she shifted her focus to him once more.

"It's one of the bosses. Quick, get back to work!" she rasped to him in a hushed tone. Nodding quickly, Bumble started resuming his own assignment as Peach Blossom spun about to face her apples.

Before they had a chance to get caught they both finished turning back to their prior work and did their best to look appear busy; Bumble's current job being dry mopping the floor of any sort of wet stains, while Peach Blossom looked over her tower of apples again for any sort of imperfections. One of the managers, the one who Blossom had witnessed, grew closer to them with his eyes thankfully set not on them but a clipboard he held in front of him. His name being Ashcoat, which matched him nicely given his gray-furred body, he stopped and let out a long hum.

“Mr. Bee, I've been looking for you,” he said, shifting his clipboard into his shoulder as he focused on the new worker. “There’s a bit of a mess in need of being cleaned in aisle ten. A customer was wandering through, slipped somehow, and knocked over nearly a dozen cereal boxes. Care to tend to it?”

“Yes, of course, sir,” Bumble nodded, giving a small salute with his free hoof as the other balanced the mop's handle. Ashcoat hummed again, nodded once in affirmation, and began moving away to look over his other duties. Bumble blew out a puff of air through his lips and looked back at Peach Blossom as she stared to him in turn.

"That was close," he gasped in faux-horror, though truly a little shaken by the unexpected encounter. "And it seems I've used up all my time to see you off-break. I'll see you again soon, Peach!"

"See ya, Bumble!" Peach Blossom bid with a pat on the shoulder. Content, Bumble set off to clean the mess. Giggling to herself, Blossom watched him leave her sight before resuming her own work.


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Persica was ready to scream.

A month of fruitless attempts to restore proper order to the household had passed by, and still there was no success in the effort to capture the meddlesome pest that was the boggart. More traps of high degrees of creativeness and cunning were set in positions and spots few creatures could hope to discern as something not what they appeared to be, and yet, all were set off and evaded by the creature. With every trap defeated, more things in the house went missing. More things broke. More food withered, spoiled and vanished without so much as a crumb to herald their passing.

As another sun rose to bring about another morning, Habeas awoke feeling as refreshed as he could be. Jumping out of bed with his usual spring in his step, he got himself ready for the day. When he was done preparing for the trials that it would no doubt entail, he then performed his regular morning duties around the house.

After finishing a good old rousing round of mowing the lawn outside (the grass lining the orchard and around the property had grown long enough, Habeas had determined), he decided that he needed a small break. Walking into the house and wiping the nonexistent sweat from his chitinous brow, he trotted into the kitchen, pulled a glass from the cupboard and filled it with cold water in the sink. As he finished downing the cool substance down his parched throat and licked his lips of the last droplets to stain them, he heard a sound of trotting hooves coming from behind himself. As Peach Blossom was away learning at school, the only fathomable culprit it could be was clear...

Indeed, who Habeas saw was Persica entering the kitchen from behind him. From what he observed as he conducted his morning business, she had been monitoring the many traps she had laid down during the week, seeing which had been sprung, which hadn't, and which ones needed replacing.

"How goes it?" he asked her, gaining her attention.

Keeping her view on what she was currently doing and pulling what appeared to be a jar out of the fridge, she sighed. "The same..."

Placing what she had gotten onto the nearby counter and shutting the fridge door, she gave him a brief glance and smiled to him, which he returned. This planted a question in the changeling's head, but he was a little slow to voice it. "What're you doing?"

"Just getting a late morning snack," she responded, unscrewing the lid to the jar and pulling out a fork from a nearby drawer. She placed its silver, three-pronged tip in the thing and plucked out a green vegetable. "A little snack, that's all."

As she stated this and then took her first bite from its tip, Habeas was nearly ready to go off and continue his work. He was about to do just that, when he took notice of something quite off in what she was doing. "What... are those things you're eating?"

"Pickles," she casually replied, lifting the same one back up to her mouth with her hoof and taking another crunching bite from it. Savoring its tangy taste with a small purr, she chewed and swallowed before speaking again. "I know they're yours and Blossom's, but I didn't think it'd hurt anyone if I took one or two for myself, for once."

"I thought you didn't like pickles," Habeas was quick to comment while she took yet another unperturbed bite, this reason being why the situation seemed so odd to him.

Persica's eyes blinked once as her chewing slowed. "I... did?" she asked, swallowing after. She looked at the pickle she was currently eating with a glaring expression. Silent, she placed it to the side of the counter. "Guh," she then mumbled with disgust, sticking her tongue out from her closed lips a small way. Screwing the lid back over the jar and putting it away in the fridge, the mare moved away from the half-eaten vegetable she was once happily munching on and walked toward the back of the kitchen, near where Habeas currently stood. "The craving must have... just come over me."

Biting her lip, she looked his way as he spoke again. "There's nothing wrong with that. Everyone gets cravings from time to time." Closing his eyes, Habeas gave a great grin that ran from ear to ear in his effort to keep his marefriend from feeling tense at yet another blighted thing. "I just thought it seemed a little funny, that's all."

"Maybe it's the stress that's got me into doing it," Persica uneasily responded, knowing for a fact that wasn't the case. With a flick of her brown tail, she pushed the half-eaten pickle further back on the counter it rested upon and turned to the window hanging over the nearby sink Habeas had previously gotten his water from. "Of... of this whole thing, clearly. I've rid many houses of boggarts in my time. But I've never faced one this utterly crafty before. It knows its way around whatever I lay down. And with all the traps I've set, all I've done to it so far was tick it off. I might as well have been spraying water at a hornets' nest this whole time..."

"Oh, don't get so hard on yourself." Habeas put his drinking glass away and began to walk up to her. "Give it time, and I know we'll catch the thing. Maybe this one's just naturally smarter than any other boggart you ever encountered. An 'evil genius' among them, if you will."

"After reading that crude note it left us? Yeah, right..." Persica turned the nozzle on the sink, washing some of the pickle's juices off of her hooves. "I think I'm all stirred up because I feel so insulted by how such a small thing has been able to outwit me. You wouldn't understand just how that feels, given all the other manner of creatures I've met and fought against." To this, the changeling's brow lowered, as though he heard a challenge he was more than happy to accept.

"Oh yeah? Try me."

Persica took in a deep breath and brushed a small strand of her mane's hair from her good eye as she thought back to her glory days. "Well, I've fought brutish rock trolls with nothing more than my bare hooves. I've delved into poisonous jungles and fought against the great feathered serpents living there. I've claimed victory over entire hordes of bloodthirsty bog wights, took down chimeras larger than our house, and beheaded the most fearsome and horrid of remorhaz to ever crawl upon the merciless, frozen wastes of the north. I once even wrestled with a cantankerous, full-grown dragon and came out of it mostly unscathed."

"Mostly unscathed?"

"After several hours of continuous punches, kicks and bites, with both of us exhausted, beaten and bruised beyond measure, we mutually agreed to call a truce," she shrugged to Habeas' query. "He stopped pestering the town that paid Chantilly and I to take care of him. But that's another story for another time. Right now, we need to focus on the present."

As she loudly exhaled, Habeas sighed alongside her in agreement. He went silent for a second, trying to think of a way he might be able to raise her clearly lowered spirits. "You know, seeing you acting so fidgety right now with the boggart in the house reminds me of you from... another time."

Thinking she just heard a terrible joke, a single, dry 'hah-hah' escaped Persica. "How so?"

"Well... I have one image." Habeas fixed the handkerchief around his neck. "The last time I saw you act even remotely like this was during the times shortly after we first met. Ya'know... the times preceding when we first kissed. Before we became... us."

"Really?" Persica raised a brow, truly surprised by this juicy little morsel of information. "You think I'm acting like that?"

"Somewhat." Habeas said this in a most unwilling tone, as even so minor a thing as that was a something he disliked to say to his true love. "From what I remember, you were a bit quick to the trigger at first. I... I just don't want you to do anything drastic."

Persica pursed her lips. As she stared out the window, Habeas walked to her and leaned his head beside the mare's own, imparting a small kiss upon her cheek. "I just want you to know that whatever the issue is, boggart or otherwise, I'm here for you, Persica," he next spoke into her ear. "I'll always be. And I know we'll solve this dilemma together, somehow. Just give it a little more time."

Retracting his head upon seeing the beginnings of a small smile form on her otherwise-still face, Habeas next placed a comforting hoof upon her shoulder. Feeling slightly better, though not by much, Persica placed one of her own upon his. She held it there until she felt comfortable enough to take it off and look at him. "Thank you, Habeas," she quietly spoke, though with more worry clouting her mind than clarity.

His expression gleeful, Habeas seemed content with what he had stated. He would have given her another kiss and left the room to tend to other important matters, but then remembered something he wished to tell her. "And Persica, while it's on my mind, I'd like to tell you that I have a little plan going on." After saying this, he emitted a small, faux-devious cackle. "I was going to keep this a secret until a little later on, but to let you in on it before it gets too late, I got us booked for a spot at another good restaurant in Canterlot next weekend. The Tasty Treat, to be specific."

"What? Dinner for next weekend?" Persica questioned. "On what reasoning did you decide to make a decision like this?"

"On the reasoning I was just talking with you about. I saw that you needed a night out," was his reply. "The creature living in our house has been driving everyone batty. Especially you." He smirked. "Seeing you take a short while to relax and have a nice, delicious meal is just the thing this scenario calls for. And maybe, just maybe, there'll be some sense of ease when the week gets over."

"You're sure about this, dear?" Persica's expression had fully changed into one of pure befuddlement. "I mean, I'm okay with it. But are you? You seem to be scheduling an awful lot of these dates as of late..."

"Yes, yes! I'm perfectly, one-hundred percent okay," he confirmed, flashing another large grin that only triggered more suspicions in the mare's mind. With a sense of twitchy eagerness in his movements, Habeas began to turn himself around in the direction leading from the kitchen. "Now, if you'll pardon me for a minute, I've got to go check something real quick."

Keeping his mirthful visage, Habeas trotted in a leisurely fashion in the direction of the stairwell, walking up them after. He was soon gone, leaving Persica alone for the time being. Humming as she thought over what her lover was indubitably planning, the mare began slowly walk up to the counter where the pickle she was once eating rested. Sighing to herself again, she picked the vegetable up, brought it back to her lips and continued to eat it where she left it off, once more savoring that tangy taste only a scrumptious, crunchy pickle could provide.

Habeas finished moving up the stairs in a scant few seconds and then made his way toward his and Persica's bedroom. Why he was heading that way was to, what else, check over his betrothal gift. Just to make sure it was all good and safe, as he constantly did in days like these. He took time to set the dinner coming up this weekend, Saturday to be specific, and that was going to be the fateful day when he would find out if Persica wished him to truly be hers.

Saturday. It would happen Saturday. Yes, Saturday night, that night, when he took her out and served her the best dinner in her life, he was going to propose to her. This time for sure. He was going to tie that delicate ribbon that had evaded him for so long. He was going to do it at last, as he should have done a long time ago.

Eventually getting into the room, Habeas trotted over to the lamp hiding the key and lifted it. Relief swept through Habeas as he found the little thing, safe and sound, within the spot he had so carefully hidden it. That wretched little pest hadn't discovered it. Even if it had found it, Habeas felt content with the knowledge Persica bestowed upon him about how boggarts seemed to have an aversion to iron. Picking it up, the exuberant changeling placed it in the lock and twisted it.

"Thank goodness... that little creep-thing still hasn't gotten to it," he breathed to himself reassuringly as he pulled the key out and tugged open the drawer. Now free to gaze upon that which laid within, he peered into the dark depths of the opened compartment, expecting to see the precious article of engagement. He expected with the utmost certainty that he would see it.

Too soon he had spoken, for that wasn't what he saw. The first thing his eyes came upon instead was a hole in the drawer's center that had been apparently gnawed in the wood where the trinket once rested. A large hole. And the necklace, including the box it laid inside of, was gone; gone from the spot where he had set it last. His eyes steadily growing to the size of dinnerplates, Habeas could only stare at the area blankly as reality took its sweet, cruel time returning to him.

No... Stricken by terror most extreme, a voiceless scream burst forth from the changeling's mouth before he could so much as halt himself in the ungodly mixture of horror and surprise that coursed through his brain in that one second. All that came out was a small, squeaking whisper. He felt faint. He felt sick.

Attempting to move back from the spot and turning about, Habeas tripped over his own feet. He stumbled to his knees before he could get more than a meter away. Catching himself, if only just, he could feel his breathing becoming strained and erratic.

And from somewhere within the walls surrounding him, a partially muffled and truly horrid, chittering laugh seemed to echo, as though observing the unfolding torment of the changeling's discovery. As though mocking him mercilessly for his lament and spilling burning salt upon the wound that had been freshly gashed into his mind.

"Now, Apini, don't give me that look."

As her husband said this, Apini kept the same look - a cold and bitter glare - glued onto him. It was for what he dragged her out of her room to do. A little while ago Bombini stated that, starting today, he was going to get her onto a little 'physical exercise' routine, or some other nonsensical activity of that degree. Such a thing was only a waste of time, and she knew that well.

Tired of giving him her unblinking leer, Apini shifted her view to the living room floor her wheelchair stood upon. From several feet away stood Honey, watching the whole thing with a mien conveying much excitement. Though school for the day for both herself and Bumble had only just ended, with her elder sibling currently off working for the remainder of it at that store he had recently been hired by, she was the only child home. That didn't mean she was going to use her time up doing things by herself when she had parents to play with, or at least help out. One whiff of her father's plan later and she was positively ecstatic to lend him what she could give.

"Mom, why are you acting so grumpy about this?" She asked her mother this with much curiosity as to why she didn't seem to want any part of what was going on. "This is going to be fun! Don't you wanna have fun?"

"I believe she does," concurred Bombini with great enthusiasm, nodding her way. "Apini, don't you agree with your daughter? C'mon, cut us some slack," he then said, patting one of her forelegs. Apini rotated her head up to his smiling face once more, giving him a dry look of her own.

Bombini saw her dull reaction and consequently pursed his lips. "You should put that little grimace away and put on a grin instead," he said. "Because, starting today, you're going to learn to walk again. Isn't that great?"

While Honey let out a cheer of encouragement, Apini, too, put on a smile. A sarcastic, biting smile aimed at the changeling that was her husband. He wanted to get a cripple like her to walk again. What an idea indeed!

From even the slightest of glances, anyone could see that Apini's front legs were in decent health. Her hind legs, though - the legs she hadn't used since the accident - looked quite thin and a little bit atrophied from their lack of real activity. They still appeared to perhaps be in good enough of a condition to walk on, though. And that was just what Bombini had in mind when he put together this plan of his.

And though he saw that smile now adorning her face, he could see past it laid the same uninterested, and very much annoyed look she had been wearing for the past several minutes. "Apini, listen," he began. "We both know how changelings like ourselves are like when it comes to sustaining injuries. We break a bone, it heals. We lose a leg or a wing, it grows back, so long as it isn't seared off with something hot and fiery. It might take a while to recover at times, a long while that may be, our bodies always find a way to renew itself. Your accident might have left you unable to move properly, but I think you could very well be healthy enough to start doing so again, right now."

A disbelieving huff left Apini. She shook her head and looked away, turning her attention to the small particles of dust floating in the afternoon sunbeams shining through the window at the other end of the room. To this, Bombini placed his hoof upon her shoulder again, patting it softly. "You may never have been there to see them yourself, but I've seen plenty of other changelings in the hive recover from injuries just like yours. Scars we may bear, but we changelings are a hardy folk. You're not as weak as you think you are. It's all dependable on how you see it, Apini."

"Yeah, Mom!" Honey agreed, flittering into the air on her wings with a buzzing noise and using them to fly over to her mother and father. "You've just gotta try!"

Grumbling, Apini turned her head back to Bombini and gave him an uncertain look.

"Dear, just try it. Try it this once, at the very least," Bombini implored to her, staring into her teal and red eyes with the same level of affection he gave to her on the day he married her; a time that now felt so long ago. "Apini, do you want to walk again? Or would you prefer to continue acting like a... how the ponies say, a 'sack of potatoes'?"

She failed to even register his comment. "Tell you what," he started again. He pointed a hoof to the chair sitting at the other end of the room, the same one Apini would sometimes sit in on some days to look out of the window. "If you make it from your current seat to that one, we can be done for the day. Does that sound like a good deal to you?"

Still nothing. Honey drifted back to the ground at her mother's continuous blatant reluctance. "Dad, are you sure about this?" she asked him, moving up to and poking a hoof into his side. Apini seemed to ask the same question with the glare she turned and fixed on him then.

"Yes, I am," he responded, keeping his focus trained on Apini in all her inflexibility. Feeling it was time to try out a new tactic, he turned next to his daughter. "Honey, can you leave the room for just a few minutes? I want to see how good your mother does by herself with just me to coach her on."

"Umm... okay." Honey's head sunk a few inches dejectedly. Raising it again and putting back on a smile, if only for what she thought would be more encouragement for her mother, she decided that such a move would probably be for the best. "I'll go play with my toys in my room. Call me back if you need anything!"

"Will do," agreed Bombini. Skipping out of the room, humming a happy little song to herself, Honey left the two to do as they would. Wasting no time after hearing his daughter move out of earshot and sight, Bombini stepped in front of Apini and gave her a frank look.

"Apini," he said to her in a slightly firmer voice than before, "please, at least make an attempt. I swear, if you move from your wheelchair to that chair, we can be done. We can be done forever - if you make it to the chair right now." To this, Apini raised one of her brows in a somewhat intrigued gesture, as though to say 'oh, really?'

She kept that same look, raising her head higher as she did so. She sat up a little straighter in her chair, taking in a deep breath as she stretched some of her upper body out. When she began sliding herself forward in her seat, it seemed obvious that she was preparing to leave it, much to Bombini's delight. For a good long second, he thought for sure she was about to make an honest attempt to use her legs to reach the piece of furniture. He was quickly proven wrong when Apini arched her back enough to let transparent wings have enough space to begin buzzing rapidly, and soon after that she sluggishly moved from her chair to the air on them.

As Bombini watched, Apini slowly flew across the room, nearing her chair in the span of seconds. Hovering up to it and turning herself about, she sat herself down nice and easily. Her wings slowly stopped buzzing and she folded them behind her shelled back, then shifted her body into a more comfortable position.

"Hmm?" she grunted, shifting the smuggest and widest grin in the world at him. "Hmm-hmm-hmm?"

Bombini turned away for a brief second, his head low and emitting a half-suppressed laugh at her attempt to worm herself around his prior vow. "Using wings is cheating," he stated, looking back to her. Apini's smile transformed back into a frown as her husband went on, walking over to her as he did so. "It's your legs we're trying to put to work. Not wings. Care to try again, in the correct fashion?"

Apini huffed and folded her forelimbs together, expressing her displeasure in the way she moved more than her voice ever could. Once again, Bombini placed his hoof onto one of her chitinous shoulders, all for the sole reason of attempting to goad her into action with kindness. "At least try, dear," he sighed into her ear. "I'm not asking you to do this for me. I want you to do this for yourself. And not just for your own sake, but for our children, too."

Hearing him, Apini's stubborn visage began to shift. She let her eyes once again drift to the floor below as he went on. "They might like having me around now, but I know for a fact that they both want you to be more involved in their lives. Can't you see it?" he asked her, his tone rigid as stone. "Bumble's made a few passing comments my way over the last few weeks about how immensely caring toward himself and Honey you 'once' were, before the accident."

Apini's head fully spun his way as he spoke to her what their son had said. An expression of plain sorrow came into her eyes at first, and it slowly began curling into one of lament. A silent minute passed by before Apini could bear the image. The entire, clear image, no longer. Summing up all the will that was hers, she pushed Bombini back a small ways, as though asking for him to make some room for her to do something.

Now more confident that his wife was going to take this task with a little more seriousness, Bombini walked to the other end of the room, stood beside the vacant wheelchair Apini had left, and faced her.

"Just walk to me." His words were soft, but also assuring. "Just walk to me as well as you can manage, make it to the wheelchair, and everything will be fine. I promise you."

Uncertainty was the only emotion Apini experienced in the seconds that followed. Her mind raced, thinking of everything this exercise would entail. Even if she were to try and do this, however unlikely such a thing as regaining her ability to walk seemed, she felt like a young child being cajoled into taking its first steps. It was a sensation that felt as embarrassing as it was... necessary.

She inhaled, held her breath for a moment, and exhaled. Opening her eyes, she bent over and placed her front hooves onto the wooden floor. Getting a firm stance on the floor, she allowed the rest of herself to slide out of her chair like a slug moving over a leaf in a garden. As soon as she did, her body sank low with zero resistance from her numb hindquarters, though she was still held up only by her aforementioned front limbs.

Apini gave a quick side glance to her sagging back legs. The aged and stiffened joints had a small, small feeling to them, however dull it was. It was easy to mistake for nothing, yet Apini tried as hard as she could to make out anything but that nothing. But even in spite of her effort, as she could see well, they moved with all the liveliness of an unused marionette.

With no short amount of forcefulness and strain in her movement, Apini practically dragged her hindquarters across a portion of the wooden floor, struggling with all her might to get them into stride. Her fanged teeth gritted together as she went, hoping and attempting to lift her accursed, limp limbs. Then, almost like her hopes had been answered in one second, her back hooves, both of them, touched the floor with a hollow clop. A sensation she hadn't experienced in well over a year filled her entire being then, its feeling as alien as it was familiar.

Her hind hooves finally getting in the motions that mimicked her front ones, she took one light, frail step, then two, then three in greatly less than perfect, but partially stable harmony. Slowly, minutes apart from each tread in fact, Apini gained ground over the floor of the living room. She took another weak step, and then another, putting all her physical might behind each bout of movement. The changeling, more than once, thought of using her wings to aid her in the effort, but she ignored the idea. As the stress from this action took its toll, Apini felt like her legs, the back ones shaking awfully and her front ones trembling as well from supporting them, would actually take her to that stupid wheelchair.

But alas, as several grand feet laid between her, her husband and the wheelchair, Apini relied on them for support for too long. Their quivering reaching an apex, both of her back legs gave out in unison and her frontal pair followed suit. Unprepared for the fall and having nothing to catch herself with, she collapsed with a small yelp and a flinch. Before the cold floor could meet Apini's face, the feeling of her husband's hooves caught her by her waist in their safe grasp. Panting in relief and reeling in realization at what she had just accomplished, she took in a few deep, shaken breaths, before finally letting her eyes stare up at the beaming visage of her husband.

"That's a good job," Bombini tenderly whispered to her, giving her a warm, proud smile, bringing her close in a joyous embrace. "That's a good job."

Youth and Love

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"Dad, Mom, I'm going for a little walk. Is that okay?"

Bumble had descended from his room and spoke this query aloud. Set over his firm shoulders was his blue school backpack, which rustled and rattled around noisily with the items it contained as he moved. Aside from his hoofsteps, that was the only sound he heard at the moment, given that no response had yet hit his ears.

"Dad? Mom?" Bumble called out again. Still he heard nothing. Vexed, he ventured throughout the house upon reaching the base of the stairs, trotting to where he suspected he would find either one, if not both of his parents -- the living room.

Sure enough, upon reaching the living room, there his parents were. In the center of the area and with his back turned to him, Bombini was tending to Apini in her wheelchair. His hooves massaged her shoulders in soft and smooth motions while he quietly spoke to her, apparently giving to her words of encouragement. To Bumble, it was clear that they were about to start another round of that nonsensical walking practice.

As if that would help with anything that was wrong with his mother...

"Dad?" he eventually asked their way, trying one last time to get some sort of attention. "Hey, you got a second?"

"Bumble!" Pausing in his activity and slowly spinning both himself and his wife's wheelchair about, Bombini beamed his son's way. "Yes? Is there something you need?"

Bumble cleared his throat. "I just wanted to know if it was okay with you if I were to go for... a little walk." His hoof next pawed with a sense of impatience at the floor below, but his view remained fixated on his father.

"Oh, it's perfectly fine with me. The weather's still nice, so I think it's best you enjoy it, while it lasts," easily replied Bombini. His brow then suddenly lowered, curiosity coming over him. "Where do you plan on walking, if I might ask?"

"Oh, you know... around Canterlot," Bumble answered in as dull a tone as anyone could utter. He rubbed the back of his neck with a hoof as his eyes turned away to nothing in particular in a slow motion, as though staring through the wall before him. "Maybe I'll go a little ways outside Canterlot. Have myself a little stroll through the woods, possibly. I just want to find a quiet, comfortable, outside spot to do my homework in. Is that alright?"

"If that's what you want to do, then... go ahead, son. Be safe," his father eventually bid, smiling his way. He was about to refocus his attention back onto Apini when his eyes lit up a small ways, remembering one last thing he wished to say. "Oh! And have fun."

His head swiveling back his parents' way, Bumble snickered, accompanying the sound with a roll of his eyes. "The walk may be, but homework isn't something I would refer to as 'fun'. But thanks, Dad. See you and Mom later."

Bumble took a good look at his parents as they started going back to preparing their activity. Seeing clearly that Bombini was fixing a loose grip on one of the handles, Bumble's gaze fell to his mother herself. Apini, once looking away as her son conversed with her husband, glanced to Bumble weakly, as though sensing his prying eyes. She put on an even weaker smile for him.

Bumble tried to smile back, but he didn't try very hard. Not wanting to dwell here any longer, he turned around and made his way to the house's front door. Upon exiting through it he emerged to the Canterlot streets.

He trotted a short distance. Instead of simply walking forever, though, the moment he had rounded the corner he burst into a joyful sprint. He ran past ponies who happened to pass him by, either walking, talking, or noisily selling their wares. He ran until he left Canterlot's front gates, and after approaching a path leading into the Everfree Forest, he finally stopped to catch his breath.

From there, Bumble simply walked onward with his bag still rattling from over his shoulders. Inhaling the sweet scents only the outdoors could provide, he used his other senses to take in the serene beauty that surrounded him. The path came to a river it started to run alongside, and the sound of gently moving water meshed well with the songs of the twittering birds from overhead; at least, the ones that still hung around with fall's onset. Most of the trees their little avian bodies stood in had developed their bright, pretty autumn colors by this point in the year, and Bumble found himself gawking at the sheer, vivid brightness of some of them. As ironic as it was, the next thing to befall his view after coming to a bend -- his destination, in fact -- was that of something less than pretty in appearance. And yet, it still made him grin like an idiot.

The sight was that of an old, dead witchwood tree, sitting at the base of a big grassy mound just a dozen meters from the riverbank. It was a tall and haggard thing, having never born leaves for nearly three summers. Its pale, brittle-barked trunk, quite unlike the darker colorings of most of its neighboring trees, was thin in basic appearance, but not to a major degree. All around its top were a cluster of skeletal branches, each ending in wicked claws that scratched at the air every time the wind blew them into animation. Gnarled roots extended from the soil and along the mound it sat before, pushing many feet out from the dirt it had grown over in some parts.

Given this particular tree's set of unmistakable, distinguishing features when compared to the likes of its background, it was a good place to mark on a map or set up for a meeting spot. Given it's basic form, it was just as well the perfect location to sit at if one was searching for a perfect cover from a fierce storm, or just to kick back and relax.

The ambient sound of the river flowing beyond it and the wind rustling through the other trees and their leaves and branches above filled Bumble's ears as he walked forward. His urgency in leaving his home prior was due to the fact that he had come right here to meet someone important. That one person was the sole reason he smiled as he did. And he hoped with all his might and with every fiber in his body that that certain someone was on time as well.

And so, taking in a deep breath, he voiced her name.

"Peach?" he called out, his voice slightly hushed, as though paranoid someone else would be listening in. "Peach, are you here?"

"Yeah!" then came a familiar voice, just a short distance from him and right around the bend. "Is that you, Bumble?"

"Yep!" Bumble answered, his heart almost jumping the moment he received her response. His pace hurrying with renewed energy, he rounded the tree and came across a figure just on the other side of it, who seemed to be racing his way as well. There, now not ten feet off from himself, was Peach Blossom. She had on a pack of her own, and around her neck again was that lucky green bandanna. The second his eyes witnessed her, her own saw him. Mutual smiles of glee formed on their mouths, and they only grew closer.

"How are you doing, Bumble?" inquired Peach Blossom, lifting her left front hoof up. Bumble lifted his own and the two punched against the other.

"Pretty good, Peach. How're you?"

"Pretty good."

"Wanna get started on some of that homework?"

"With you? Always."

And so, under the shade of the tree and in a comfy spot just between its roots, the pair did just that. Pulling their books, papers and pencils from their bags, the two young creatures did just as they planned: they worked on their homework, setting right to it like diamond dogs upon a pretty gemstone. They talked about some of the problems, discussed the texts, and solved some of the more perplexing questions with the aid of one another.

It was as their work entered its first hour when Blossom felt the atmosphere they were in change, starting with Bumble's turn in behavior. Sure, they were taking some time to look over the newest page's list of problems in need of solving, but for the last five minutes he had gone completely quiet. Whenever they were together, and especially if neither of their parents were around during such moments, Bumble hardly ever went as quiet as this toward her. Feeling most curious, she turned from her textbook to his yellow-furred form and saw that he wasn't looking at the paper as she had been doing.

He was looking at her, and in a manner most strange for that matter; a fixed, albeit minor glance over his shoulder to her, but one he had clearly kept for most of, if not all that time he was silent. His eyes, both the green one and the ever-odd, yet strangely alluring red one, were filled with a noticeable wishful glimmer. An extra noticeable wishful glimmer.

"You look like you've got something else on your mind, Bumble," said Peach Blossom.

"Uh... yeah." He turned his head back a small ways as he was snapped out of his view, chuckling once. "A... a quick question."

"For what?" Blossom asked. "Math?"

"N-no, not math. Not any other school subject, either."

The moment she heard the stutter in his voice, Peach Blossom knew something was indeed up. She cocked her brow and puckered her lower lip, interest filling her inquisitive young mind. Changing her posture, she placed her chin in her left hoof and set down her pencil. "Oh. Then what is it, Bumble?"

Oh, boy. Here we go... Bumble thought, hoping for the best. He inhaled and exhaled a deep breath, joining in on the sounds of the heavy fall breeze passing by. "Can I ask you a question, Peach?"

"Sure you can." She scooted over a little closer to him and smiled confidently. "Ask away."

Again filling his lungs with as much air as they could hold, Bumble Bee let his long held-in question go.

"Peach, do you... do you, quite possibly... like me?" he asked. Unable to help himself in his suspense, he tapped his forehooves together in a nervous display, his head turning to the books and papers before him but shifting his eyes her way. "As in... like-like me?"

Peach Blossom heard him well, and she paused. Her mouth had curled into a frown -- not out of anything negative to do with his answer, but of apparent deep thought. While it at first seemed as though she might just put down his question in spite of it, everything Bumble feared went away when that frown she wore turned into a big, wide smile.

"Yeah, I do," Peach Blossom admitted, her tone light, but at the same time firm and true. One of her hooves lifted from her lap, snaking its way over to Bumble's side, where it gripped his own. "I've 'like-liked' you since the second grade, Bumble."

"Wh-, I... R-really?" sputtered the disguised changeling. He was quick to regain his disposition, clearing his throat and evening his posture. It wasn't nearly enough to soothe his surprise and pleasure, even though his next sentence continued regardless. "That's-that's... I... I..."

Peach Blossom couldn't help but snigger at his stammering. "Oh, come on, Bumble. Don't tell me you haven't noticed all the cute faces and stuff we've been making to each other over the past few months. And don't think I didn't notice that time you wrapped your hoof over my shoulder at the movies."

She poked him in the side with her hoof twice in a teasing fashion. "Now, I know you know that I noticed it. And besides that, we both caught each others' hints numerous times."


"Yeah. Hints."

"Oh, pff..." he dismissed. "I didn't show you any hints... I mean, all those things you might have seen me do were obviously-"

Bumble's futile defense was cut off when a warm, wet sensation touched his mouth and sealed it close. With his eyelids lifting like a pull-and-release shade upon a window, he realized that Peach Blossom had leaned her head in with a gleeful humming tune and put her lips upon his. The kiss itself lasted two, maybe three seconds at most, but when Peach Blossom broke away, Bumble thought for sure an hour had passed. Shock filled him, its fury most terrible.

For a good minute, Bumble couldn't find the capability to speak. For a good, long minute, Bumble began to question if this was reality. His eyes blinked rapidly and his lips, still filled with the taste of Peach Blossom's own, quivered ceaselessly. Needless to say, his entire face gradually devolved into a hodgepodge of chaotic emotion that he simply couldn't withhold. Only one thing was certain that his mind could ascertain was not an illusion, and that was that he was not dreaming.

Finally, he formed just enough willpower to sum up the words, "D-did you just-?!"

"Yep." Peach Blossom raised her head high. The expression on her pretty face was the very definition of smug. She jabbed a hoof at his chest, light as a feather in its touch and yet bearing as much impact as a spear. "And let me tell you, Bumble; I've been waiting a long time to do that."

Bumble continued his stuttering, happy but still in shock. Peach Blossom, equally overjoyed but more clear of mind, contented herself with continuing her harmless teasing of him until he could get a grip of himself. The two shared this moment for a long time, the homework completely forgotten, all while being blissfully unaware of one creature that watched them from a short distance away.

That creature hailed from the river nearby. Most would have mistaken it for a large and chalky rock protruding from the stream's murky depths, but a rock it was not. It was the upper portion of a great head, scaly in its almost colorless texture. It was covered in random patches green algae and many a stray weed that had grown upon its rugged white flesh, all accrued over the years from living below the water's surface.

He saw the pair well from that tree they currently conversed under. This was, after all, his territory that those two equine folk were trespassing upon, and he knew most things that happened within his small, but comfy realm. Normally, those who would intrude upon his territory would be eaten with a quick and brutal snapping of his mighty jaws.

Instead of attacking, it continued to watch the two lovebirds speak of their idiotic infatuation with one another and say some more meaningless sweet nothings. It saw them with the bright, crimson, reptilian eyes protruding from either side of the end of his head, which usually stared with hungering intent toward many who it saw as potential prey.

Hungry, however, they were not now. The beast's belly was still quite full from a meal it ate just shy of a year ago, so it decided not to bother the intruders -- this time. Puffing a small geyser of water from the slit-like nostrils on his snout and allowing his first set of translucent eyelids closing over the crimson orbs they belonged to in a most lazy manner, the head of the creature slowly sunk below the surface, leaving behind a small cluster of ripples and air bubbles as its pallid crown full submerged. Those bubbles traveled upon the current a small ways and soon popped, leaving Bumble Bee and Peach Blossom alone in their merry little moment of bliss and revelation once more.

Habeas was acting odd. Very odd.

Persica was sure of this fact the moment she laid eyes on him this morning. There he was, busily hopping around with vigor unlike anything she had ever seen. He ran about like a cat with its tail on fire, going this way and that, setting up some minuscule trap one second and then dusting off a counter or rearranging a vase the next. When Persica of course asked him why he was acting so strange upon witnessing his perplexing antics, all he would respond with was a simple "No reason," or "Just trying to help," or "Just tending to the house!"

Normally, that may have been enough of an explanation to keep her suspicion from growing. But the way he accented his tone with every single word he uttered her way... he sounded almost like he was keeping a secret from her. Hiding something most important from the eyes of anyone.

Indeed, he was displaying that big red ring of antics and emotion that could only be interpreted as giddy and terse. That wasn't the Habeas she had grown fond of.

Even with her own little worries to tend to, she knew there was something most unsettling he was preoccupied with. And while he had been helping her as best he could with their pest problem, over the past two days he seemed to be taking a nearly unhealthy interest in the methods on capturing the accursed boggart that had been evading them.

Persica had brewed herself some coffee and walked into the living room once again. Sure enough, Habeas was still there and he was still practically jumping around the room. Now, he was working on setting a mousetrap for the room's corner, with its bait being a small speck of cheese. One little mistaken twitch later and the trap instantly snapped, catching the tip of his hoof.

He yelped once and mumbled a curse to himself, but he soon he went back to setting it again. Persica, unhappy at having to see him like this, shook her head and sighed.

"Habeas," she spoke, drawing the changeling's attention quickly from the traps to her. She already knew the answer to the question she was about to say, but she asked it anyway, if only to hear her lover confirm her suspicions. "What are you doing?"

"Oh, you know. I'm still, uh... trying to find a way to draw out that boggart, heh." His light laugh came out with a clear hint of nervousness. His eyes wandering from Persica, Habeas went back to the trap he wanted to place. He moved its little parts around as was meant to be done and rigged its bait again. But as soon as he set it, it again snapped up, leaving him to softly groan in frustration.

Persica took a sip of the coffee from her mug as Habeas tried again to reset the trap. "Mouse traps aren't going to do it, you know," she advised. "Sure they're made of iron, but they're too... obvious. Also, the boggart can just take the bait without disrupting the mechanism."

"Well, I'm willing to try anything to catch this pest of ours at this point." Habeas groaned again. "You've practically exhausted all of your options, right? Now allow me to exhaust mine."

Turning his head, Habeas went back to his activity and began to once more rig that accursed trap, all while Persica looked on, silently sipping another mouthful of her warm drink. Her eye stared at Habeas and the room around him. Her mind raced, but with calm precision.

Funny enough, she had formed a fresh idea a few days ago; one she had never before implemented to catch a boggart. It was a more hooves-on approach, one meant to finally discover where the little wretch dwelt in a way it surely wouldn't predict, and Habeas was the key to it. But even so, she was certain that her beloved changeling would be hesitant to put himself in the danger it had the chance of escalating into, and she herself felt that way as well. But seeing Habeas now... well, if he was truly so keen on catching that supernatural vermin as she was, then perhaps he would find some interest in it.

Only one way to find out.

"Habeas, look at that."

"Look at what?"

"That." Persica pointed at the wall close to him. What she specifically motioned to was a small hole protruding from its base.

"I'm certain that's where the boggart's been commonly coming in and out of," she continued after Habeas saw it for himself.

"So?" he asked. "Why not plug it up?"

"Because it will just make another."


Time to reveal the plan. "Habeas, I think we might find some use in it. If we were to find some... oh, I don't know... method of peeking into it and where it goes, perhaps one could explore it without having to tear the whole thing down."

"Explore it? That could be helpful. But... how could we?" Habeas began to stand up, getting to his hooves with a small grunt. He exhaled a noisy breath through his nostrils and his expression seemed bleak. "Without the proper means or tools, it's just a fantasy. I mean, it's so tiny. One would have to be as small as a mouse or a rat to get in there and navigate around..."

It was as the last word left his lips that Habeas' entire complexion brightened like a light bulb. He blinked twice, as though startled with his sudden realization.

"Wait... I can shapeshift!" he exclaimed, his ears raising with his sudden squawk.

Persica could only stifle a giggle and roll her eyes. Most amused by his reaction to this fact, she nodded and allowed her coltfriend to continue with his moment of clarity.

Habeas stuck a hoof to his head. "It's... it's been so long since I've last decided to change forms, I guess I forgot!" he snickered. "Oh, wow... this is embarrassing."

"Embarrassing as it may be, how do you feel with it?" asked Persica. "About the plan, I mean."

Habeas, still beaming brightly, answered immediately. "If it'll be the boost we need to catch our unwanted guest, then I'll do it!"

Persica paused. "Wait, are you sure?"

"Yes, I... I am!"

Just like that, Habeas trotted up to the hole in the wall. He looked down at it and hummed, obviously preparing to enter the thing already. A rousing jolt of surprise and common sense struck Persica.

"You're going now?" she inquired, placing her coffee mug on the table and approaching him.

"Well, I'm feeling up for it at the moment, so why not?" Habeas poked at the corners of the hole as he spoke, measuring its size and the appropriate form he would have to take to pass through it.

Her brow lowered, unsure of his haste in performing this task. "I won't stop you, but I advise you to at least think for a moment."

"We've been thinking for a while. But not a second more is required, I think. Now is the time for action!"

Oh, he was too caught up in the moment. Nothing short of the extreme would stop him at this point. Best now to at least to try to steer his ambitions from recklessness. "Promise me one thing then, Habeas."

"And what would that be, my dear?"

Persica huffed, "Please, if you locate the den, don't do anything rash."

Habeas smirked. "Oh, come on, Persica..." He closed his eyes, waving his hoof dismissively. "Could a creature so small as a boggart really be-"

"I'm serious, Habeas." She interjected, shifting him a rough glare. "You don't know what these kinds of creatures can do, especially when faced with a changeling in the body of a rodent. And if this one is as crafty as it is, then I fear what it could be capable of if one were to trespass within its own lair. Especially if you were still in the form of a rat."

With that single, apt description, Habeas realized what he might be getting himself into, and gulped accordingly. "Well then," he said, "I suppose I'll take my stride with immense caution."

"Good." Persica placed her hooves onto his shoulders and moved him just enough to properly face her. Gripping him tightly, she drew his mouth to hers. When their small kiss broke off, her face was still wary. "But... are you one-hundred percent sure you want to do this? Brave as you act, you don't normally attempt to do things so... recklessly."

"Puh-lease." His cheeks lit up with a bashful rosy color. "I'd do anything such as this, reckless or otherwise, for you, my beloved. And I'll have you know that reckless bravery is my middle name!"

"I thought it was Corpus."

"Oh yeah? Well, that's my other middle, um... na-" The sensation of Persica's lips suddenly coming to and meeting his again halted his speech before he could form a proper comeback. He closed his eyes briefly and joined in on it once more, savoring the long, sweet moment with the one pony he loved most.

"Be safe." Their kiss ending right before she spoke again, Persica stared into Habeas' eyes with her good one. There was sincere worry shining upon her face, and it was a look the changeling could not ignore. "And be swift. Just find some clues, and come back to me as soon as you can. Preferably in one piece."

"I will," promised Habeas, smiling confidently.

"And you'd better." Persica let go of her dear changeling and stepped back, allowing him to have the space he needed to shift forms properly. Winking at his marefriend a final time, Habeas became enveloped by a light green flame for all but a second before the magical energies faded.

When it parted, what stood there was no longer a changeling, but a brown-furred rat. A rat with an unusually intelligent expression upon its rodent face. As its hairless, pink tail swished about twice, it looked around the room, its whiskered nose twitching before its beady black eyes came back to Persica.

"Welp," Habeas squeaked her way in a voice that sounded almost comically high-pitched. He stretched about the minuscule digits lining each of his forepaws in preparation for the coming journey. "I guess it's time to sniff me out a boggart den!"

He chuckled to himself awkwardly as he accented his sentence, earning a dry, though honestly humored glance from Persica. The gravity of his mission sinking into his head, Habeas quickly straightened his rodent face out into a serious mien. Clearing his throat, he gave Persica a final, confident nod, and scurried his furry form to the hole nearby. He popped into it with ease and vanished from sight.

Persica watched him depart. The sounds of claws and paws scurrying within the walls went out in shrill abundance before that, too, went silent. Her expression slowly changed to something ever more somber with every second that slipped by after he left. Seeing him leave so quickly and thrust himself into potential danger couldn't help but send a cruel image streaking through her head. An image telling her that if anything happened to him before she could at least reveal to him the precious secret that she had been harboring, then the most horrific moment of her life may just repeat itself.

"Be safe," Persica bid to him once more, her voice lowered to a whisper. "Be safe for me, Habeas."

A Rat in the Walls

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Habeas was not enjoying himself.

For four agonizing hours now had he been crawling through the walls of the house, all spent solely in rat form. Being a changeling, he was of course no stranger to the task of shapeshifting, but assuming so minuscule a form as this was not one of his strong points. He had been set as it for so long now, he could swear he was getting cramped by it. What surrounded him was little better. Beset by all manners of dust, the interior of the house's walls and areas beneath the floor was almost despondent. Dark and unwelcoming textures were abound, complimented by the accompanying odor of old wood, both damp and dry. Some of the myriad metallic parts of the interior were slippery with grime, others touched by the taint of rust.

And that wasn't the worst of it. Cobwebs, some still bearing the big fat spiders who originally made them, lined almost every corner or every space of the dark passageways within these walls. The silken constructs were great and small, some hanging loosely like tapestries woven and set up in ages long since passed, their designs grey and featureless. He had to cut through some of them with his little rat paws or long scaly tail in order to traverse the spaces. The experience never failed to send shivers down his little rat spine until he had torn through so many that he had grown used to the unsettling sensation.

The musty air, thick with the dust and other assorted floating debris, tugged not only at his acute nose, but at all of his senses relentlessly. Much like the cobwebs, the feeling of crawling through these confined spaces, even in the agile and well-suited form of a brown rat, was a most queer experience indeed. It almost made him feel as verminous as the breed of creature itself, skulking about with animal intent. It made him feel filthy. Every changeling sense still in his head was yelling distress, telling him to turn back to the comforts outside of these dark, cramped, labyrinthine conditions. But he would not. Still he pressed on, disregarding such trivial until he found the boggart's hideout, rediscovered his prize, and perhaps also dealt with the vicious little fiend for stealing it from him...

More time passed. He went through the walls, the floor, and the ceiling, then back to the walls. Nothing yet showed itself. Not one speck of evidence that something bigger than a mouse was living in these walls. Save more of what he had thus far witnessed, his gaze caught little to be noted. His heart was heavy with worry over this apparent futility. Surely, surely he would find something. If not the den or nest or whatever this boggart creature had formed for itself, then a sign, at least...

Then, he heard something.

As his doubts reached their zenith, Habeas' keen ears swiveled in the direction of a strange, new sound. It was not that of the wind seeping through the wall's cracks, or the creaking of the house, or the skittering of insects, or even the pitter-patter of another rat. It sounded like... breathing. Long, slow, heavy breathing, from a creature of at least his current size, or greater.

A lead? Habeas followed the sound, slipping his rat body through cracks and spaces between the wooden framework. He scampered and scrambled through the small spaces as well as his rodent self could afford, until he saw something that was, without a doubt, the last barrier between him and the source of the breathing. It was a hole in a plank of wood, its edges splintery, like sharp and wicked teeth had gnawed it into shape a long while ago. Quickly and quietly, he made his way for it. Without a moment to lose, he peered inside.

The moment his head poked through the hole, a sight of sights awaited Habeas. What he came to was an alarmingly vast chamber, carved into the wood of the walls with care few creatures possessed. The edges of this makeshift lair were bedecked in curling piles of straw and leaves, while more varied or torn strands littered the floor. Strewn or hung about was pilfered jewelry of all kinds, their gold, silver and copper surfaces somehow glittering in the low light of the cracks above; the gemstones that studded some of them, much more so. There were valuable porcelain trinkets, whole or broken. Pieces of dusty, gnawed-on toys and plastic buttons and paltry strips of colorful clothing or laces or ribbons were the most abundant things visible, some placed with care while others were not.

This was it. It had to be the boggart's nest. The way it looked, the stolen items, the care given no simple animal could give... yes! This was it! That was one of two things screaming through Habeas' excited head. And there was still the subject of the origin of the breathing that led Habeas to this location. He turned to see it after taking in all of his new immediate surroundings.

...And he saw it, in the leftmost corner of this repugnant nest. A bizarre being he had never before witnessed, never thought he would see until this day, snoozing without care on a bed of straw and coins and feathers and a variety of random debris. Even while laying down, this entity was plainly inches shorter than Habeas' rat form but twice as wide. Its rotund form was clad in ragged wares of miniature design, either sewn together from nothing or nabbed from dolls or both.

And next to it, as Habeas could see so plainly, was... the necklace. It was unmistakable. With a gilded chain extending from it, it had the same golden texture, and the same three diamonds encrusted upon its splendid heart-shaped surface. And it was being kept, hugged close, in the filthy embrace of this dirty, rancid creature that had the gall to steal it away from Habeas.

When next Habeas had his wits to steer his deeds, he was soaring through the air, teeth bared with a furious squeak echoing from his throat. He landed atop the prone, snoring boggart with a nameless clash that sounded only thunderous. His paws grabbed at the necklace while he continued making shrill cries into the long-nosed face of the miniature monster.

At the warcry and pounce concluded, the boggart's snoring came to an end. It opened its beady eyes, its entire expression snapping from relaxed unconsciousness to full, startled awareness. When it beheld the furry mass wrestling upon it, it shrieked. Its grasp on the necklace faltered for a moment, and that moment was all it took for Habeas to yank it back and hop off his foe.

He ran for the entrance, but he didn't get far. The boggart must have grabbed at the chain dragging behind the retreating changeling, as one sharp tug later, Habeas found himself being pulled back, back, and back some more. He spun about to find the boggart was growling and gurgling furiously, pacing with chain in hand until their positions were reversed; Habeas in the back, and the boggart near the hole. Habeas responded with a hiss and spun his rump wholly in its direction. With rapid flickering motions, his wormy tail whipped the entity in its ugly face.

The duress of the attack proved effective after only a few seconds. Finally it let go of the chain and wiped at its aching face with its little gnarled hands, admitting defeat to this strange little match of tug-of-war. Be that as it may, the creature had not given up. Instead it was pulling back, back to a pile of junk near the entrance. Its rotten teeth were bared, anger and clarity filling its ugly face when it removed its hands.

"I have your scent. You aren't a rat! You're that stinky changing-thing!" it squawked, pointing a small, dirty, accusing claw at the deceptively intelligent intruder within its domain. "You dare to presume you can steal from meeee?! Gunter Snagknot?!"

"Don't you dare. You stole this first! You stole all of this!" Habeas croaked, pulling the entirety of the necklace's chain behind him. He backed up to the boggart's bed, plotting desperately on how to escape but coming up with nothing immediate.

"Finders keepers, pally!" The boggart sneered. Chittering hatefully, it grabbed at a large silver coin sitting nearby, one caked entirely in dust and grime to the point that it looked more outwardly fuzzy than metallic. Hoisting it back, it flung the piece at Habeas with a force greater than its size would indicate. Habeas himself could only move to avoid the makeshift missile. His rodent agility serving him well, the coin passed him by by an inch, clattering loudly against something wooden behind him.

The verminous fey was still screaming as the attack concluded. "That jewely-thing is mine! It's the prettiest thing in this dumb house, and I want it! I stole it, fair and square!"

"It's not for you!" Habeas bellowed fiercely. His grip on the necklace tightened. "And it's not for me! I got that for someone else! If you think you can just take it from me and get away with it, you're sadly mistaken."

The boggart crouched and huffed skeptically. "Me? Gunter Snagknot, mistaken? As if anyone could want something so shiny as that than me..."

The dark hair bristled on Habeas' back. He prepared to fight, knowing the one way between freedom with the necklace was behind his enemy. His violent plans were set and about to be enacted, when he noticed something that made him halt. It was something blatant in the boggart's body language. Its guard was lowering and it rose up, its whiskered lips twitching curiously.

"Wait... No..." A smile, long and ugly, crept over his mouth. By the time it was literally spread from one ear to the other in its grotesque length, it was clear that he knew what was up. "No, you don't simply want it. You need it, don't you?"

Its eyes went from Habeas' face to the necklace. They widened, blinked, and shrunk in short succession. "You need it to make her your own, yes?"

He mentioned no names, yet Habeas knew all the same who he was speaking of. His twitchy, whiskered maw opening, he bared his sharp rodent fangs hatefully. The entity raised its hands easily, conveying well enough that he was done fighting for the necklace.

"I think," he grinned, "that we can play a game.

"A... game?"

"Yes," the boggart nodded. "A game! Just a simple game, with a simple challenge, winner take all, no strings attached." He sauntered to the changeling from his side of the nest, no visible malicious intent in the motions of his stubby legs. "Wanna... make a little bet, buggy-boy? We boggarts aren't fond of making them, but this seems to be a more special occasion than most."

His guard still up, Habeas' head tilted suspiciously, and his rat-tail behind him swerved left and right. "What sort of bet?" he squeaked.

"A bet concerning your skill in courting that silly, maimed mare your heart so inanely craves."

There were few things that could enrage Habeas, much less get him to fuming in so swift a time. At that brutish comment, his spine arched, and he gave the densest, most hateful growl he could give. It was obvious the vulgar fey had heard it. Again Gunter raised his paws in a non-hostile display until the changeling calmed, which took some time to achieve.

When his foe had finally calmed, the boggart giggled and cleared his guttural throat. "I'll tell you how this works, buggy-boy: You have to take that pretty necklace and do with it what you got it for. Propose to the mare, string it about her neck, or whatnot. I'll give you one month to do it. A generous offer, I know, but given your performance so far... well, you'll need it."

Habeas heard this well, but he found himself perplexed by his part in the wager. The boggart only continued, his care for the changeling's confusion being evidently little in its abundance.

"If you accomplish this, if she says yes, if both of you mean it, you win. For winning, I'll... give you my services. I'll help about the house, I'll make your precious cropsies more fertile than they ever were until winter closes in, and I'll even protect the house from intruders. And after one whole year of this, I'll leave. Leave! Gone for good, gone away, gone, gone, gone. You'll never see me again, I swear it."

Now, that image showed much more clearly to Habeas. It almost tickled him. But... there had to be more to this. With that, cold skepticism snuffed out the warm thoughts. His rat ears twitched. Yes, there was something else, something downright foreboding, in this boggart's tone.

"But," he said to the creature, "there's a catch to this, isn't there?"

"Mmmmyes," hummed Gunter. He tapped his tiny fingers together, giving the throatiest of chuckles. "It's the best part: You can't tell her anything. Not about the bet, not about our meeting, and not about me or my nest. If you do, the game is over, and I win."

And there was the real question. "What happens if you win?"

"If I win, I get to stay here, forever. I get to live here, forever. My house, with my rules alone. In other words, I get to cause as much havoc as I'll ever want—and you, or your sweetheart can't ever do anything about it."

"We could still try to catch you, you know," Habeas pointed out. "I know where your lair is."

Gunter merely rose a claw and wove it about, tsking as he did. "Fooooolish changing-thing. You do not understand the gravity of this deal. A deal such as this goes beyond the realm of nature's laws. It would prevent me from being harmed by anything you, your mare, or anyone else living here can concoct, buggy-boy. Not poison, not traps, not nothing! Even stuff I normally can't get near. Stuff like iron."

"How?" Habeas asked.

"Fey magics work in strange ways, my insect-ish friend." That loathsome smile remained on Gunter, arrogant and foul. He shuffled his rotund form until he was but a few inches from Habeas. "I've given you the terms, and you know their proper gravity. Now, then... is it a deal?"

Habeas didn't know what to think. It would be difficult to escape this lair with the necklace, but this seemed to be an opportunity to do so, bloodlessly. He had no idea if what this creature said was even true, but whether or not it was, there was trouble brewing in his words.

"Your bet... it could cause more trouble than it, or you, are worth."

The boggart's long, pointy, impish nose twitched twice. "But you have a chance to get rid of that trouble, and far more than just it, don't you?"

"Mmm. True, true..." anxiously grunted Habeas. There was little denying that.

Gunter hummed positively. "You're not leaving here with the necklace if you say no. I'll use my powers to make sure of that. All you need do, to get out of here with your prize wholly intact, is shake my hand."

The creature extended its minuscule hand his way, its dirty claws so very visible in the low light of this lair. The changeling eyed it with suspicion. Even with the gesture, Habeas was still unsure.

"And all this is... the truth?"

"Abso-tibly, posi-lutely the truth! We boggarts may love the havoc we cause, but if there's one thing beneath even us, it's telling a filthy lie. So, I'll tell you this one final time: take a chance... roll the die."

The boggart's chirp evolved to a short and quiet snigger as he witnessed the changeling's indecisiveness. And Habeas was indecisive. He eyed the fey thing's appendage cautiously, so dirty and callous, hungering for the tricky deal it requested. It seemed so simple and easy to overcome, but in its beady eyes he saw the wisdom this verminous entity held, the knowing of Habeas' true weakness that could spell ultimate victory for it, instead of him. Then he looked to the necklace, the same jewel-encrusted gift he had hunted for in this horrid place. He had promised it to the most wonderful person he knew in this world. Now, it was something in his grasp again.

Light creaking sounds of the house briefly settling echoed around him, eerie as it was. There was so much more he could use this pendant for. It was the key to ridding the house of this repugnant fiend, yet also was it the trinket that could instead cause a great deal more suffering than what was already happening now. Habeas knew he was at an impasse, and the truest solution to his and Persica's troubles rested on one end of this double-edged sword. He sighed wearily.

What was he to do?

Persica was not enjoying herself.

Sure, the day was calm, if not in fact shaping up into something lovely. Outside was warm and sunny, but far from humid. The inside of the house was pleasantly cool. Everywhere seemed nice and orderly compared to the past few days. And yet, more than an anything, Persica was anxious.

Habeas the cause of this current conundrum, she thought. He had been gone for a while. The last time she saw him was as he slipped into the walls, off to try and discover the boggart's nest for her. He popped into the hole in the wall, scurried off, and was gone.

Persica tried to keep herself busy as she waited for his return, but the task was challenging. She washed the dishes twice over, even though the sink had few wares in need of cleaning. She briefly checked the garden and then the orchard, though there was not much to be done on either. She swept at some dust in the corner parts of the house, barely built up after Habeas himself swept and vacuumed the place to the bone not two days ago. Now she was sitting in the kitchen, alone, her gaze having fell to the sight of some colorful birds twittering around the peach grove outside the kitchen window. After all, all there was left to do was anxiously wait for her coltfriend's return. If he returned, anyway.

Perisca uttered a heavy sigh. It was about now that she was thinking about how she never should have let him go. He lacked the experience needed to deal with creatures like boggarts. Their ilk might not have been known for possessing enough might to truly harm, much less kill anything pony-sized, the fact stood that Habeas was more vulnerable in the form of a rat. But she had let him go, and away he was. She heard the pitter-patter of him moving from time to time within the house's interior; assuming that was him on any measure. Yet, for all her doubts, for the situation her beloved was in, she still knew Habeas was a competent creature. He was hardy, he was smart. Surely he would make it back to her. Surely...

Persica eventually realized her confidence in his skills were abundant enough. Perhaps she was worrying about her other problem, she thought next. She brushed a hoof over the scar of her sightless left eye, then used it to cradle her chin on the table.

The idea of telling Habeas that she was with foal still left a sour taste in her mouth. She had no idea how a changeling would react to having a child of their own, much less how they would react to that child being a half-breed. The day that moment inevitably came was clouded with uncertainty. She fantasized every reaction he might give, when, or if, it ever arrived. Euphoria, excitement, mirth, confusion, guilt, lament... even anger, as near-impossible as it was to comprehend him acting. Near.

Persica had her own experience to compare the ideas to. She remembered well when she told her first husband Chantilly Cream of Peach Blossom's inception, all those years back. Compared to her current situation, when it came to her dear daughter... it was just a natural sort of thing, back when she was younger and more naive to life's finer points, and its eventual conflicts expected to come between ponies, and only ponies. The moment itself was one she could never forget; it was as her husband and herself were discussing what to do when the major fall peach harvest came about. The memory of his reaction, slack-jawed shock and stuttering comprehension, upon finally registering the phrase she passed to him at their conversation's end—just a casual, "Oh, and I'm pregnant, Chantilly"—brought her a much-needed smile in this trying time.

Persica's pleasant reverie ended the moment she heard something burbling briefly in her keen ears from the living room not far behind her. To her immediate delight, she recognized it as the distinct sound of a changeling shapeshifting.

Her relief came sudden and swift, thoughts of birdsong and youth and children and telling solemn truths vanishing the instant she stood up from her seat and spun about.

There, entering the kitchen, was Habeas. His movements were sluggish and weary, but he looked whole and well. The changeling spotted Persica quickly, but had yet to utter his greetings when she trotted up to him and enveloped him in a large, firm hug. Placing a deep kiss upon his cheek, her nose next nuzzled against his chitinous face, soft and content hums purring from her smiling mouth.

"Are you alright?" she asked into his ear, as her loving greeting concluded. "How was it?"

"A bit cramped, got a nosefull of dust, but I'm fine. Quite fine," Habeas answered, before placing a gentle nuzzle of his own behind her jaw. Persica took his gesture with suspicion, detecting the traces of discontent in her lover's voice.

"Did you find the boggart's nest?"

* * *

And... there it is. Habeas held his breath as it came back to get an even view of Persica. An image of his encounter with the boggart flashed through his view for a split second. The echoing feeling of touching the foul entity's hand and holding tight as he shook it briefly lingered over what was once his left rat paw, now in natural hoof form again. They came to him like some nasty horsefly bite as Persica asked the question, and he had to fight against wincing in front of his marefriend.

He had taken the deal, repugnant as it was. He still remembered one of his parts of it, where he could not tell Persica of what he found. From somewhere in the back of his head, he could still hear that rancid, chittering laughter Gunter Snagknot uttered when he took his hand and shook it. It struck him with an instinctual sort of dread, and worse than a simple fly-bite, it stung.

"No, I didn't." He lied, head turning to the tiles kitchen floor as self-disgust filled his mind. Lying to Persica felt like a punch to the gut more than anything else, but for her sake he wore only a simple mien of apparent frustration. "I looked everywhere, but there was nothing. No clues. Not... a single thing. Just a lot of cobwebs. And spiders."

Pangs of disappointment also drew Persica's view to the floor. "Darn." She exhaled a mighty sigh. Following it came an easy smile that spread across her face when it came back up. "Well... you did well enough. You'd best not worry about it; we'll get him at some point. If you couldn't find the bugger in the walls, then it probably set up a nest deep beneath the house."

"Sorry," he started again, though apologizing for a new subject. He wrapped a foreleg over his shoulder, moving it tenderly. "I... feel a bit stiff. Nothing that a moment or two of private time will fix, to collect myself and straighten out my joints and pieces. Being cramped in those walls was no picnic, heh. I'll go sort myself out in the bedroom and be back down in a minute."

Persica's expression told Habeas she understood him. "Go do your thing," she nodded. "I'll be down here, waiting."

Habeas smiled back, and after only a moment's hesitation, was off without a further word. When he finished trekking up the stairs and was inside the bedroom, he closed the door carefully behind him and made his way to the center of the room. With no eyes on him and his privacy secured, he started to shift and move his limbs about. All portions of his being stretching, his wing casings and forehooves moved especially about until the latter were again holding the treasure. He brought it in front of him, where he could best see it.

It was the necklace. Even still tainted by some smudges of dust, its luster was something undeniably beautiful to behold, something truly worthy of Persica. He had hidden it within his wings' shell casing the moment he transformed. There he kept it, until he got up here, where he could deposit it somewhere else where Persica would not discover it. The foul boggart swore he would not take it again, under penalty of losing the bet; not until at least he lost this wager upon which so much was staked.

Habeas knew this would be a difficult endeavor. Of course he knew that, it was difficult already! Worse were the words he was looking for. The binding words that would make him hers, and her, his. He had thought of so many in the weeks leading up to this moment, but none felt quite right. His answer evaded him, and he needed to track it down more than ever before.

At least... at the very, very least, he had this. He had his chance once more, but it was now the quest had become outright perilous. He had time, before all this. Now this sacred matter was something he would have to hasten, if he hoped to spare the ones he loved of the issue of an eternal pest.

Habeas had spent so much time with Persica since her first met her. He felt safe thinking that he knew her as well as he knew himself. Somehow, though, all of the pieces of the wondrous relationship they built up to this point still seemed so brief, so fresh. Would she accept his proposition? Would she be ready for the commitment he would be thrusting upon her? And even if he somehow succeeded in earning the apex of her affections, would she understand why he was doing this, or learn of the boggart's wager? Before this whole mess, Habeas had all the time in the world. And now... now he had a month.

Habeas groaned wearily. His shoulder slumped limply against the bedroom wall, his sight not leaving the pendant for even a moment. Part of what he said to Persica was true, about wanting to stretch out and clear his mind. The experiences of clambering through the musty walls of the house and dealing with the boggart itself were also getting to him. He needed to sit down for a while, think things out. Make a plan.

Yes, he thought. Rest, and make a plan. That sounds like a good idea.