Notes: I've been rereading the (entire) Discworld series, and noticing how characters seemed to split and evolve into others as time went on... And I've always thought (particularly since the Science books) that if they'd take the time, Rincewind and Ponder could possibly be good friends. (Definitely early Rincewind, anyway. Maybe in some Trouser-leg of Time, somewhere.) Imagine that something else happened between here and Ponder's later student days to get him to relax a great deal.
I don't use footnotes because they're awkward on a computer. And I apologize for the first three paragraphs; I find them boring but slightly necessary.
Ponder Stibbons, student wizard, was flying high. Well, metaphorically speaking. Basic levitation would take much more than a week of study, but Ponder was hopeful. The past week had been his first at Unseen University, and it had been the best in his life by a mile.
Admittedly, it hadn't all been easy. He'd spent his first afternoon at UU in tears because he couldn't find his lecture on Slood Dynamics in room 3b. Finally an older boy took pity on him and explained a few essentials of university life. A moody night had given way to an optimistic morning, and Ponder had managed to plumb the depths of some far ancestral hunting skills and succeeded in attending at least one lecture each day since then. And he was making a map of the professors' offices. And he was working on proving himself worthy of the Librarian's trust.
But the best part was his classmates. His eyes scanned the Great Hall eagerly. All around him were boys with one hand holding a book open, and the other holding a spoon, fork, or simply their food. Or occasionally, if the boy was really engrossed, a hand would dip down into a bowl of pudding. Older men were engaged in the same activities, though usually without the book. The sight filled young Ponder with a wonderful, warm feeling of fellowship. It was in stark contrast to his past experiences with his peers, which involved a terrible, warm feeling of shame, and included a greater variety of nicknames. This past life was quickly retreating to his subconscious, however, secure in the knowledge that quite a few of his new classmates were repressing similar experiences.
Ponder took a bite of meat pie and let out a small sigh of perfect contentment as his eyes dropped back to his book, Voyages in Semi-PseudoFretwork, Volume 1.
"Oh, what are you so smug about?" snarled a voice from across the table. Ponder looked up again hurriedly. It was an older boy, skinny compared to the other older students. A handful of wispy red hairs stood out defiantly on the bony chin, and rodent-like eyes narrowed angrily.
"Sorry," Ponder said automatically. Then he smiled tentatively. "There's just... so much here! So much to learn! So much magic!"
The young man brushed a crumb from his scant facial hair. "Let me guess, you're new?" He might have been in his late teens or twenties, but his eyes looked at least a decade older.
"Yes! How long have you been here?" Ponder asked, eager to get to know an upperclassman.
"Long enough." The thin wizard's face hardened more. "And how much magic have you really done?" He paused just long enough for the younger boy to open his mouth. "Well? Are you calling up dragons and creating new universes and making incredible magical discoveries that will benefit all wizard-kind yet?"
He paused again, watching Ponder shrink back, but went on mercilessly.
"No? Well then surely you can speed up the growth of a plant, or turn your ears orange, or grow a beard, can't you?"
Ponder's lip was trembling. "I – I'm only twelve," he mumbled, his voice catching in his throat. "I just got here a week ago. I... can't do any of that."
The older student, who had been leaning farther forward with each challenge, sat back and seemed to get a grip on himself, albeit a tenuous one. "Well. I expect that'll come later," he said stiffly. He turned his eyes down to the diagram he'd been studying, and took a vicious bite of mashed potatoes. His finger lightly traced the pattern, and his lips moved soundlessly. A little bit of potato dropped on his shirtfront, and he wiped it off and licked his finger with wounded dignity.
Ponder should have known better. He should have let this outburst cool off, or at least return to stew beneath the surface.
Instead, craning his neck, he said, "Is that a basic circle of protection? Only we learned about them the other day. Are you in my class?"
The other boy twitched violently, and slowly raised his head. Ponder flinched back from his eyes, which must surely be placing a curse on him.
"Yes," he said icily, as he slowly pulled his diagram off the table and into his lap. "And no. I am not in your class." He hissed the last word as if it were something putrid and rotting.
"It... was rather hard," the younger boy mumbled humbly, fiddling with the tablecloth. "I don't think I quite have it yet either."
This, by some freak chance, turned out to be the right thing to say.
"And I suppose all your classmates got it in one go!" the unhappy young man moaned.
"Er. Maybe not in one, but..."
"Of course. They're all just brimming with protection after an hour, nothing can touch them. Then old 'Screw Ear' Mungerlin turns to you and he says, 'Okay, Rincewind, I've adjusted my fireball to gnat-singeing strength, let's see if you've got it THIS time,' and you can guess who was the ONLY one to leave the room with a burn. Again." The luckless Rincewind thrust up his left hand to reveal a nasty purple scorch-mark ringed in red, and a slightly blackened sleeve.
Ponder drew in his breath in sympathetic horror. "But... it's supposed to be the simplest spell..."
"Oh, spells, magic," Rincewind sighed dismissively, swirling his fork around in his potatoes.
"But... isn't that why we're here? Isn't that what it's all about?" Ponder was floundering.
"Gosh, I hope not," said Rincewind fervently. "I mean, it's... well there's the major Spells, and a few quite good things you can do if you've got it in you. Or at least wizards used to, ages ago. But mostly these days it's all colored lights and things flying about and consorting with all sorts of great... tentacle-y things... Wobbly bits all over." He gestured expansively, fingers wriggling, eyes wide. A group of passing students decided to give him a wider berth on their way out of the hall.
"But... what could be better than that?" asked Ponder, who felt it was best to keep an open mind about wobbly bits.
Rincewind waved his fork vaguely. "Oh, it has to be out there somewhere. I mean, the raw materials of the universe and how they fit together, and why things happen the way they do, and what would happen if they didn't. How the world works. What it all means. I mean, when you think about all that, all these tricky little spells and ancient ceremonies and Truly Illuminated Portals of Wossname just seem a little... well... silly." The older student swallowed, embarrassed.
Ponder's eyes had grown huge. His lips moved slightly as he stared at a missing patch in Rincewind's right eyebrow. The red-haired student wizard took another bite of potatoes and watched the boy for a while, looking a bit like a rat. Then a large hand slammed down on his shoulder.
He leapt, or would have done, if said hand hadn't been clamping said shoulder down with the force of a thing that could clamp quite hard. Possibly a limpet, if anyone at the table had been familiar with such a creature. Or possibly not.
"Rincewind, old friend," a steady voice rose behind him with the friendliness of your everyday tax collector. "Stubbs and I were just looking for you. And here you are, chatting up new students. I noticed that you've failed to move up again. Are you hoping for some study tips from this... likely lad? I can't imagine the University will continue to feed you for much longer, and I see you've considered that as well."
Rincewind had gone a deep red. His teeth were clenched, and his knuckles white. He was glaring down at the trembling fork in his hand. Ponder watched, horrified. The two student wizards behind Rincewind looked to be about the red-haired young man's age. The one with a meaty hand on the seated boy's shoulder was built like an old potato, thick and lumpy. His companion was tall, slim, though not as skinny as Rincewind, and with thin hair barely peeking out from under his hat. He had an odd, humorless smile.
"Trymon," Rincewind tried to growl, though his voice seemed to have come down with a case of the Wobbly Bits. "Did you want something?"
"Actually, yes," Trymon replied, stepping nearer. "We were just discussing some of the Great Books in the Library, in my Sourcer Theory class today. Quite advanced, so I'll try to break it down for your benefit." He flashed a tight little smile at young Ponder, who gulped. "Of course they're locked up for our safety. A shame to waste such potent magic, but sadly necessary. Can you imagine, we were saying, what a book like the Octavo could do with a mind like one of ours?"
Trymon leaned down. "And that's when I thought of my old classmate Rincewind. Clearly, if I were to open the Octavo right now, terrible things would happen. But someone like you, with no power or potential there to draw on, would be perfectly safe, don't you agree?"
"Now just a moment!" Rincewind said hotly, turning as much as he could with a great hulking legume attached to his arm.
"Oh? Am I mistaken?" Trymon asked calmly. "I'm quite sure old Greyhald Spold was saying just yesterday that you had still failed to achieve anything here at UU other than new depths of failure hitherto unimaginable. Was he wrong? Do you, indeed, have anything to show for yourself?"
Rincewind's face had a decidedly purple tint to it, and his eyes were squeezed shut as if willing this not to be happening. It wasn't working. Ponder tried to slink away, but the massive Stubbs growled and raised a sparking finger. The boy remained rooted to the bench.
"No? What a shame," Trymon continued. "But as I was saying, I've thought of an excellent way for you to earn your elevenses, as it were." His eyes flashed up to Ponder, and he smiled again. "...Perhaps we'll just take a walk. You should try the pike fillet, boy. It's quite good."
Stubbs practically lifted Rincewind in one hand, and the three of them walked to a quiet corner. The embarrassed wizard in training was facing Ponder Stibbons, and thus, so was Stubbs. The boy didn't dare move an inch.
Rincewind seemed to argue with Trymon a bit, but it was clearly a mismatch. The scrawny boy's shoulders hunched, slumped in defeat, then rallied again in what could be called pride (but probably not accurately).
At last, the rat-like young man was deposited, still red-faced, back in his seat.
"Do enjoy the rest of your dinner," Trymon said airily. "It's good to see you trying to make friends, Rincewind. I'd hate to think of your time here as completely wasted." He flashed a smile, or at least his teeth, at Stibbons. "So nice to meet you. And do be careful not to fall in with the wrong crowd here, boy. These are the best years of your life, after all. You wouldn't want to waste them." And with a slight nod Trymon and Stubbs oiled off, possibly to meet with some secret society, or possibly to beat the spells out of some less-lucky younger boy. Ponder and Rincewind watched them long after they were out of sight.
"What did they say?" Ponder breathed, breaking the silence.
Rincewind bit back a scream at the boy's voice, but only just. Terror warred with naked rage on his face. Rage quickly became ashamed and ran off to find something decent to put on, leaving terror victorious.
"Ngrk! Nothing," the older student rasped hoarsely. He gulped down some wine from his goblet. "It was nothing. Why don't you go... go read the invisible writings. Or... or something."
"But -" protested Ponder.
"Something," insisted Rincewind firmly, standing up. "Got that?"
"Er. I don't know," Stibbons said.
"Well... do it anyway. Can't be helped. You do what you can. Even if you don't know. Can't go around just... Something," Rincewind muttered, mostly to himself, as he walked away.
Ponder's forehead wrinkled in prepubescent puzzlement. He left the Great Hall by the other door, snatching a chocolate biscuit to sustain him on the search for his next classroom.
They would not speak again for a very long time.
Not to each other, in any case.