• Published 10th Mar 2014
  • 3,310 Views, 101 Comments

Old Habits - Viking ZX

It's Nova's first official day off, and he's decided to spend it in one place he knows he can relax: the Canterlot Bazaar. But when he has an unexpected encounter with a face from his past, can he face the pony he once was?

  • ...

The Mark

“So,” Vinyl said as she sat down across the table from him, “let me guess. You were pretty quiet on the way over here. Wondering how I knew it was you?” She rapped one hoof on the table-surface, the corner of her mouth turning up slightly.

“Yeah, a little bit,” Nova admitted as he settled in his seat. When Vinyl had said that she was taking him out to lunch, he’d been expecting either the standard Canterlot fare—something ritzy that went for more bits than most earned in a day—or something from a quick bazaar booth. Not to be walked to the other side of the bazaar and pulled inside a place that looked like some sort of tropical hut from the outside. Granted, the balcony she’d led him to was nice, and the umbrella above the table lent the final touch to the bamboo chair he was sitting in, but he just couldn’t relax. Not with who was sitting across from him.

“Well,” Vinyl said, her hoof coming up and pushing her glasses up her muzzle, “I do have an awesome memory for ponies, but it helps that they had your picture in the paper a few weeks ago.”

“They did?” Nova asked, sitting up in surprise.

“Of course,” Vinyl said, grinning as she leaned back in her seat, completely at ease. “Granted, it was a little blurry, but I got a decent look at you when you busted into my club that night. You know, before the lights went out and everypony started screaming. Hah! I gotta tell you, that was one crazy night! And I never did find out what that thing was.” She leaned forward, one hoof idly tracing a path on the wooden tabletop, an expectant look on her face.

Nova shook his head as he leaned back. “Sorry. I can’t tell you.” Vinyl frowned and he gave her a small shrug. “I’d tell you if I could, but the Captain was pretty specific.” His gaze drifted to the side, looking out over the balcony, down at the crowds crisscrossing the square. The fountain was clear now; the big blue minotaur had moved on, replaced by a few ponies eating lunch and one young filly who seemed to be intent on spending at least several bits worth of wishes at one go.

“Not even if I ask nicely?”

He let out a laugh, surprised at how natural it sounded. On the inside, he could feel his stomach twisting into a knot, fear creeping through his body like … well, much like he’d once crept through rich marks' homes. Homes like hers.

“No,” he said, facing her once more as he gave his head a gentle shake. “Sorry, but trust me. I’d be in a lot of trouble. And you probably don’t want to know anyway.”

“Uh-huh,” she said, leaning on one foreleg. “It didn’t have anything to do with that big building out in Baltimare coming down a few weeks later did it?” He gave her a shrug.

“Sorry,” he said, doing his best to sound apologetic. “Classified. Why are you so interested, anyway?”

“Hey,” she said, pulling back with a laugh. “I have every right to be interested. In case you forgot, you crashed my party with one of those things. But you are one of those guys then?”

“One of what?” Nova asked.

“The Dusk Guard. You know, those new, super-secret pony Guards that they introduced at the diplomatic dinner? There were a few articles in the paper about it. That’s where I saw your picture. That was … what, a few days before you jumped through the window at my club?” she asked, rubbing her hoof against her chin in thought.

“Your club?”

Vinyl gave him a shrug. “My club, Lucky’s club. Whatever. I play there. But that was you, right? Jumped through the window? I’m not feeding lunch to the wrong pony?”

“You’re kidding, right?” Nova asked, chuckling. “You waited until after we took seats at—” he paused for a moment, “—actually, I don’t even know what this place is called. You had me in the door and up the stairs out here before I could even ask.”

“Hey,” Vinyl said, one eyebrow dipping in what he assumed was a wink behind her glasses, “I had to rush you down here. I was worried you were gonna bolt if I took my eyes off of you.”


“Are you kidding? I had a stun spell at the ready just in case you tried it,” Vinyl said, laughing. “Not really, but I kind of got that vibe.”

“I’m not used to attention,” Nova said. That wasn’t a lie, at least. “I usually just stick to the sides.”

“A shy guy, huh?”

“Naw,” Nova said, shaking his head. “I’m more … unobtrusive. Most of the time. But you are sure you’re talking to the right pony?”

“Well, unless there’s another pony out there named Nova Beam who’s a member of the Dusk Guard…?” She let the question trail off as she cocked her head to one side.

“No,” he said with a shake of his head. “There isn’t. At least, not that I know of. There’s just the one, and that’s me.”

“Oh, good!” Vinyl said, letting out a laugh. “For a moment there, I really was wondering if I’d totally gotten the wrong pony. So,” she said, stretching her hoof across the rough wooden surface of the table, “name’s Vinyl. Vinyl Scratch. Unicorn DJ extraordinaire! Nice to meet you at last. Officially. When you aren’t diving through my windows.”

“Nova Beam,” he said, leaning forward and giving her hoof a quick shake. “Unicorn, diver of windows and slayer of monsters I can’t tell you about.”

“Rad,” Vinyl said, grinning. “So, how are your two buddies anyway? The pegasus and the zebra? I haven’t seen them since we hung out backstage that one night.”

“Sky Bolt and Sabra?” Nova asked. “They’re doing pretty well, actually. They’ve been super busy testing some of our new gear, but other than that, doing alright.”

“Well, that’s good to hear,” Vinyl said. “I hadn’t seen them come by in a while. That mare is a pretty kickin' dancer. I can’t say the same your zebra buddy.” Nova’s eyes widened as she shrugged her shoulders. “The guy can move though. With a little practice, he’d be all right.”

"Wait, wait, wait,” Nova said, raising one hoof. “Sabra, the king of...” He rolled his hoof, trying to think of a good way to describe the zebra’s slightly overdone thoughts. "Of silent brooding, maybe? He was actually dancing?”

“Yeah,” Vinyl said with a chuckle. “Well, more like he was trying to. She was giving him some pointers, but like I said, he needed practice.”

“Dang.” A chuckle escaped his throat. “Sky Bolt's good. Wish I could have seen that.”

"Her or the zebra?"

Nova rolled his eyes as the unicorn rapped her hoof on the table in a quick approximation of a drum hit. "Sabra." One eyebrow went up as Vinyl smirked. "Trying to dance."

“Well,” she said, her eyes narrowing behind her glasses, “you should have come.”

“I was studying,” he said, almost on reflex.


“Studying,” he said, nodding.

“Do you do a lot of that, working for the Guard?”

“I…” he paused for a moment, hesitating.

“I don’t bite,” she said into his silence.

Not yet, he added, taking a breath. “More than you would think,” he said at last. “I’ll be honest, it’s not what I expected.”

“The Guard work? Or the studying?” Vinyl said, her grin softening to a smile.

“Both,” Nova said, his gut unclenching a little. Maybe this would just be a normal lunch. No big surprises. “There’s a lot I have to know for my role on the team. I’m basically the team magic-user, and so Steel—Captain Steel Song, that is—wants me to have a full knowledge of all the basic Guard spells as well as all sorts of special spells. I never had much of a formal education—” He stopped, surprised at how easily the words had slipped out of his mouth.

“Really?” Vinyl asked, one ear twitching down. “Didn’t pay attention much in magic class?”

“Uh, not really?” he said, giving her what he hoped was an honest looking grin. “It’s a long story.” The table was silent for a moment, and Nova blinked at the crowd, his horn lighting up slightly. Bingo. There it was. A sound baffling spell just past the railing. No wonder it seemed like they were the only ponies around.

“Just noticing the sound baffle spell,” he said as Vinyl gave him a questioning look. “It was really quiet up here.”

“Nice catch,” she said, her own horn lighting, probably to probe at the same baffle. “So. Studying?”

“Yeah,” Nova said, nodding. “Most of the time it’s basic stuff, the kind of stuff they teach all the Guards. Light spells, disabling spells. Some shields.”

“Any teleportation?”

“No,” Nova said, shaking his head. His guts unclenched a little more. “At least, not yet. I’ve never been any good at getting that one down. If I have to, I will, but…”

“Eh, I can’t teleport either,” Vinyl said. “Although,” she said, raising her voice, “I might be tempted to try if we don’t get some service out here soon!”

“Hey!” came a loud call from the stairs in an odd accent Nova couldn’t place, “Vinyl, what're you talkin’ about?” Hooves rang against the steps and the beads rattled against one another as a dark brown stallion with a black, braided mane pushed his way through, trotting out onto the balcony. “You know I always wait until you be readying to be makin’ your order.”

“Yeah,” Vinyl said, shaking her head, “but not with company.” She nodded her head in Nova’s direction, and the big earth pony’s attention shifted towards him. “He’s never even been here.”

“Never been!?” the stallion exclaimed, his eyes growing wide. “Den allow me to welcome you to my humble restaurant.” He gave Nova an exaggerated bow. “My name is Jam Roll, and I’ll be your chef today, tomorrow, or any time you come to De Thunder!”

“Nova,” Nova said, nodding. “That’s an interesting accent, if you don’t mind me asking, where’s it from?”

“Hey, pon, ask all you want, alright? I’m from the Janeighcan islands, pon,” he said, shaking his braided mane. “Born and raised. Moved to Canterlot when I fell in love with my sweet, sweet wifey on her vacation. And now? I be bringing you the best de islands have to offer!” He sat back and clapped both his hooves together. “So, since you’re new here, I’d be expectin’ you’ll be wanting a menu. Same for you, Vinyl?”

“Got anything new on it?”

“I would hope so, pon. It’s been ages since you looked at it last!”

“Alright then,” Vinyl said with a roll of her head. “A menu for me. And a pitcher of Shock for both of us.”

“Shock?” Nova asked.

“You’ll like it,” Vinyl said as Jam Roll spun on his rear hooves and pushed back through the bead curtain. “Trust me.” She smiled again, and he gave her a half-smile back.

“Are you alright?” she asked after a moment. “You look tense. Not a fan of foreign food?”

“Ah, actually the opposite, I love it,” he said. “I’m just … crud, how to put this?” Terrified that you’ll realize that the club wasn’t the first time we’d met one another? “A little surprised, I guess you could say.” That’s a good enough cover. “I mean, I was just doing what I was supposed to be doing, and now I’m being treated to lunch by a celebrity.”

“Hey, I just wanted to thank you,” she said, rolling one hoof on the edge of the table. “You never came by the club, and when I heard your voice in the store this afternoon, that was my chance. And I’ll admit, it’s pretty sweet to find out you’re a fan. But I did want to say thanks for doing whatever it was you did to stop that monster and saving a bunch of ponies lives. That and get to know a little about the pony that did that.”

Nova’s stomach unclenched slightly, his muscles relaxing. There was another rattle as the bead curtain parted again, and Jam Roll trotted out onto the balcony, humming a tropical-sounding beat under his breath. A bright green apron was tied around his chest, two paper menus sticking up from one of the pockets, and he was carefully balancing a tray on his back that held both a large pitcher and two heavy-looking wooden mugs.

“Alright den!” he said with a wide smile. “Two glasses of Shock…” Nova nodded, impressed as the big stallion slid the tray from his back with practiced ease, the pitcher barely wobbling.

“I got it,” Vinyl said, a blue glow wrapping around the pitcher and one of the mugs as she floated them over to her side.

“I’ll take this one, then,” Nova said, picking the cup up from the tray in his hooves. The wood felt smooth under his hoof, polished. He locked one hoof through the handle and gave it a quick heft. “Pretty solid.”

“Dey have to be, pon, to hold Shock!” Jam said with a laugh. “Now, here are your menus, I’ll be back in a few minutes when you’ve made your choosings, alright?” He gave them both a borderline mad grin as he slid the menus from his apron, and Nova found himself smiling back as the stallion twirled the menus on his hooves before sliding them across the table with a flourish. “Enjoy, pon!” Then he was gone, vanishing back through the bead curtain almost as quickly as he had come.

“So,” Nova said, floating his menu up in front of him, “I have absolutely no idea what Janeighcan food is like. Anything I should try?”

“Jerk Daisy patties,” Vinyl said, tossing her own menu back down on the table with a soft slap. “Trust me, if you’ve never had them and can handle a bit of spice, they’re just about the raddest thing you’ll ever eat.”

“Are those the ones that come with the spiced potatoes?”

“Yeah, if you get the split platter.”

Nova folded his menu back up. “Might as well try a variety. What are you getting?”

“Me?” Vinyl chuckled as she picked up her mug and took a small ship. A shiver ran through her body and she let out a content sigh. “I’m actually thinking of trying the coconut-glazed shrimp.”

Nova blinked. “Shrimp? Aren’t those the little bug-like things that they sell in Horseshoe Bay?”

“Different breed, I think,” Vinyl said, pausing to take another sip of her drink. “Same idea though. Little guys in shells? Jam’s been trying to get me to try them for a while. They’re a bit expensive, but once in a while you’ve got to splurge, right?”

“I guess so,” Nova said picking up his mug and eyeing the bright green drink liquid inside of it. He took a quick sniff. It smelled … tangy. Sweet but tangy, with a faint crispness to it that he just couldn’t place.

“Ooh, your first sip of Shock,” Vinyl said, grinning at him. “Just take it easy, Shock can be a bit of a—wait!” He tipped the whole mug back, sending its entire contents splashing into his mouth.

At first, it tasted just as it had smelled: sweet and tangy, almost like a pineapple. Then his face contorted, his body jerking as something took hold of him. His eyes widened as his whole body locked up, his legs jerking sporadically, muscles twitching and pulling in all directions. He could feel his mane standing on end, feel ripples of current rushing through his coat as a loud crackling sound filled his ears.

Then whatever force it was that had grabbed him let go, and he slumped back in his seat, panting heavily. His mug slipped from his hooves, landed on the tabletop with a hollow thunk, Vinyl’s magic catching it before it could tip over and spill what little was left. He could still feel his limbs twitching. His tongue felt numb. And Vinyl was … Vinyl was laughing. Not just chuckling, but flat out howling.

“You—you—” she gasped between guffaws. “I—I tried to warn you—but—but—” She stopped laughing long enough to look up at him and promptly threw her head back again, her chest heaving as she shook.

Nova shook his head, trying to bring some sense of feeling back into his cheeks. “Whag?” He shook his head again, slapped a still twitching cheek with one hoof. “Wha?” Come on tongue! Work with me here! She was laughing, so whatever he’d been served couldn’t have been deadly. That only happened in books anyway. “Whag?”

Oh come on! he thought as Vinyl continued to laugh. He rolled his tongue across his teeth, trying not to twitch as pins poked their way across his mouth. He felt like … like … Like I got hit by a bolt of lightning.

“What?” he finally managed to gasp, the word slurring slightly as he said it. He tried again. “What was—” A final shake of the head. He could feel his mane sticking out at odd angles, smell the faint tinge of ozone on his breath. “Did I just … drink a lightning bolt?”

“In—in one gulp!” Vinyl said, lifting her glasses and wiping a hoof across her eyes. “I can’t believe you just did that!” She let out another giggle. “I—I tried to warn you, but—” She ran her hoof across her eyes once more, staring at something off in the distance. “Oh, by the moon, I can’t believe you just did that! The look on your face.”

“I…” Nova glanced down at his mug. Then he started to chuckle. The tension in his stomach seemed to melt away, or maybe it had already vanished, kicked into submission by his drink. A laugh rolled out of him, and then another. A third started, only to cut off as he let out a burp that resonated with a sharp snap as static arced between his teeth. Vinyl snorted, and then they were both laughing together like idiots.

“Well,” Nova said after their mirth had subsided. “I feel a lot better now. Or maybe that’s just the fact that I still can’t get my right leg to stop twitching.”

“Hey, it was good though, right?” Vinyl asked, lifting her own mug to her mouth. She paused, the mug an inch away, and then stuck her tongue out. There was a sharp pop as a bolt of static jumped to her tongue, and she grinned before taking another sip.

“Maybe?” he admitted, eyeing what was left in his own mug. He lifted it up and stared at it for a moment. “I kind of don’t remember.” He titled the cup up, making sure to just take a small sip this time.

Sweetness poured across his tongue, succulent and pure, but tangy at the same time. But there was something else to it as well, something tart that he’d never tasted that mixed with the tang and the sweetness.

Then the sparks hit. He could feel them, rolling over his tongue and through his teeth like beads, leaving a tingling, numbing sensation in their wake that quickly faded. He swallowed, and the beads seemed to stretch as they moved back before snapping down his throat and settling in his stomach with a rumble that almost felt like thunder.


“Alright,” he said, thumping his chest with one hoof and getting an actual rumble from his stomach in return, “I’m sold. That has to be one of the coolest drinks I’ve ever had. What’s in it?”

“No idea,” Vinyl admitted, picking up the pitcher in her magic and motioning towards his cup. He nodded and held it out.


“No problem,” she said as more of the bright green drink spilled into his cup. “Anyway, I know it’s got pineapple in it, and kiwis, but past that, I’m stumped and Jam Roll isn’t talking. I know it’s got thunder in it somehow,” her stomach rumbled, and she grinned, “but how Jam or his wife get it into the drink? I have no idea.” She took a longer, deeper drink, and let out a squeak as her mane arced. “It’s probably a mystery I’ll never get the answer to.”

Nova nodded as he tried to press his own mane back down. I’m glad I don’t have a mirror. I really don’t want to know what I look like right now.

There was a clatter as the beads parted, and Jam Roll trotted onto the balcony. He took one look at Nova, snorted and then asked “All at once?” Vinyl nodded and he burst out laughing.

“Hey, pon,” he said, slapping a hoof against Nova’s back. “Vinyl here didn’t warn you what you’d be drinking?”

“I tried,” Vinyl said. “He chugged it to fast.”

“Well, at least now you be knowing why we call it Shock! Look at it dis way,” he said as Nova managed to get one part of his mane to lay flat, “at least dere’s nopony else up ‘ere to be seeing you, right?” He chuckled and popped a small notepad out of his front pocket. “So, what can I be getting you two fine ponies?”

Vinyl made her order, swapping out, Nova noticed, the side the shrimp came with for some of the jerk patties his own order would come with. Jam took both of their orders without further comment past “oh, dat's being a good choice,” and as soon as he’d jotted them down, promised that it would be a ten minute wait before vanishing back through the bead wall.

“I like it here,” Vinyl said as the earth pony vanished. “The prices are a little steep, sure, and I know he's hamming up his accent, but he and his wife are way tight, and he’s really good about giving me a bit of privacy.”

“That’s why we’ve got the balcony to ourselves?” Nova asked, eyeing the other empty table.

“Well, that and it’s not exactly a rush-hour for lunch right now.” She took another sip of her drink and Nova followed suite, the drink sparking against his teeth and down his throat. “If it was, he’d eventually seat someone up here if he had to, but most of the time he knows I appreciate the peace and quiet.”

She took another sip of her drink, probably a heavier one, he guessed, based on the shudder that ran through her body. “Wow. That hits the spot.” She set her cup back down and looked right at him. “So, were you a member of the Guard before you ended up assigned to the Dusk Guard? Or did you join the Dusk Guard right from the start?”

“I…” he paused, his drink halfway to his mouth. “I guess you could say I joined at the start. Sort of.” I really didn’t have much of a choice except the farm or making a run for it, and I was tired of that.

“I see. What did you do before that?”

Nova winced. “I’d really rather not discuss that if it’s all the same to you.” He took another sip of his drink. Now that he was expecting the jolt rather than being surprised by it, it was almost better.

“Alright,” Vinyl said, nodding at him as he set his drink down. “Well, in that case, can I just ask you one question? You don’t have to answer,” she said as he cocked an eyebrow at her, his gut clenching once more. He could feel his ears trying to lay flat against his head, and he forced them to stay still. “But if you could, I really would like to know.”

For a moment he stared at her, his mind bubbling as he tried to pin down a single, audible response. Yes or no? What do I tell her? Vinyl continued to stare in his direction, eyes unreadable behind her glasses.

Oh come on, what’s the worst thing she could ask? She probably just wants to know if she’s going to have to worry about any more of those golem things breaking into her club. He shrugged and leaned forward on his elbow. Or she’ll just ask something about what I used to do, and I push it off.

“Alright,” he said, his voice surprisingly steady even to his own ears. “What do you want to ask?”

“Well,” Vinyl said, rubbing the back of her neck with one hoof, “this is kind of an awkward question, but how’d you go from being a professional thief to a Guard—”

Nova snapped back in his seat, the words hitting him with almost physical force. She knew. He didn’t know how, but she knew. How? But she kept going, and all his composure vanished as her question continued, his mouth falling open even as his stomach gave one last fearful twist.

“—and why did you rob me?”

Author's Note:

Just a little note here ... Shock is one of my favorite things I've ever dreamed up for any world ever.