It's only five minutes till class begins, and Tom is frantically doing his homework. Somehow he never got around to doing it before, even though he's had a couple days. It is not the first time either. And probably won't be the last.
At the desk beside him sits Ben, his clear blue eyes peacefully resting on some far distant point only he can see. This does not mean he is unaware of what goes on around him. When Elizabeth Katharina Eleanore Von den Hoyenburgh comes gracefully gliding up to his desk in her latest ballerina dress – which she has never worn to school before – and her new hairstyle – which she has never worn before, either – Ben turns in her direction with a friendly smile. He does not comment on her appearance, but then again she is wearing something new every day so in a manner of speaking there is nothing new.
"Ah, Benjamin. Good morning!"
Ben has still not repeated his initial wish to be addressed as Ben, and no one has seen fit to inform the newcomers of the fact, for some reason. Perhaps for the reason that the newcomers never asked, and generally act somewhat superior. Especially Elizabeth Katharina Eleanore; Aiko has become a lot more normal lately. Yes, she is wearing expensive clothes, but they don't look flashy. If anything, it looks like she is trying to dress normally but just doesn't know where to get normal clothes.
"Greetings, Miss Von den Hoyenburgh."
"Please, call me Elizabeth Katharina Eleanore."
"As you wish, Elizabeth Katharina Eleanore Von den Hoyenburgh."
"That wasn't what I intended. I just don't want things to be so formal between us, after all this time."
"This was your sole request?"
"Eh, no. Actually I have something to ask."
"On Saturday evening, I will be hosting a small party at my place for my friends from Vienna, Paris and Rome. I would be delighted if you would also attend. It must be lonely for you to not meet young people of your own standing."
"Oh, far from it. I have met the most delightful young people already. Even yesterday I went home with Tom here and we jumped in the hay together. Very enjoyable."
Tom, already distracted from his homework, turns to see the young lady's face. He does not need to look twice to realize that she is unfamiliar with this agrarian sport and assuming a totally different meaning. He jumps to his feet: "This is not what it sounds like!"
Elizabeth Katharina Eleanore etc is looking from Ben to him and back, her face white.
Tom tries again. "Look, we only..."
"Quiet, kids." The teacher raps his desk. "Class is about to begin!"
Tom learns absolutely nothing during that class. The moment the bell rings, he races over to that girl's place. "Miss Von den Hoyenburgh! It is very important that you understand this. My home is a farm, and we harvest hay as fodder for our sheep. It is stored in a large barn. A popular sport is to jump from as high as possible into the hayloft. It is essentially risk-free, unless you land on your neck perhaps, but a very thrilling experience. It is in no way related to the ancient practice of using hay for mattresses."
Her face shows a strange mixture of relief and disgust.
"Of course not" she says dismissively. "I knew it would be far from him to sleep with a boy, much less a farmboy."
"I hope we can do that this weekend" informs Ben from the sideline.
"WHAT?" Tom stares at his friend in utter disbelief, while Elizabeth Katharina Eleanore seems unable to even breathe.
"Oh, I haven't asked you yet. Of course you don't need to if you don't want to."
"Please tell us more clearly what you are planning. I know this isn't what it sounds like."
"I talked with my mother on the telephone last night, and asked if it was OK that you come to visit us, since I had been allowed to visit you. She agreed that you could sleep with me and my sister from Friday to Saturday, if you want. On Sunday we will have to join her at the peace conference. It is a very important one, and will also prove highly instructional to us, she said."
"Wow. That's ... an incredible honor."
"It is because you are a precious person to me."
The choice of words automatically makes Tom glance in the direction of Aiko. He is not surprised to see that she is following the conversation with keen interest. She quickly looks away from his gaze, but he knows she has heard every word.
"I will ask Dad, but I'm pretty sure he'll let me stay over the night in one of your guest rooms. Of course I won't literally be sleeping in the same bed as you and your sister."
"Of course not!" Ben actually chuckles. "Rita and I are not sleeping in the same bed anymore."
Wonderful. Tom hauls his bike the last steep rise to the farm. He has ticked off the rich girl by having Ben decline her party to be with him instead. Not that he thinks Ben would have gone there anyway. He just may have convinced the class that he is not kissing the angel and mushy stuff like that, as if that was even possible. But the girls are still jealous at him for being Ben's best friend instead of them. What more could go wrong?
"I hate you!" Trine shouts before he has even closed the door behind him. "What kind of insane idiot would bring home a Starborn without any warning?"
"He just followed me home, OK. And none of us have a pocket telegraph. How was I supposed to warn you?"
"You could have waited till the next day!"
"You think I can just order a Starborn around like some kind of servant? Besides, you were the one who wanted to meet him!"
"Not like that!"
"Can I help that you strut around in pajamas that are worse than nothing? Can I help that you decide to tackle Benjamin B Starborn in a bath towel?"
"I hate you! Now I can never meet him again!"
"If not for me, you would not have met him in the first place."
"That would have been better!"
"No it wouldn't. I told you, he likes you. Don't ask me why. I don't even know why he likes me. And he never told me that my eyes were pretty. Thank Goodness, and knock wood. Today he told the girls he wanted me to sleep with him and his sister."
OK, that shut her up. But also, very clearly, proved his insanity once and for all. Not that Trine has ever truly doubted that, as far as he has heard. Quickly he relates the whole sorry incidence. It does not cheer her up. Even the option to enjoy his public humiliation passes her by, strangely enough.
"If only we had met in a decent way! Then he might have invited me too!"
"He probably would have, if you hadn't locked the door to your room and shouted for him to go away."
"This is so horrible! What should I do??"
"Look, I know he likes you, even though you are just a kid. Why don't you telephone him? He has telephone in the house where he lives with that Johnson guy. He told me so. If you call him and ask him nicely, I am sure he'll let you come too. Really."
"I can't do that! I am going to die!"
"We are all going to die someday, but not all of us are going to visit Starborn Manor. Come on, let's find his telephone number!"
"No! I can't! I would die from shame! He must be laughing himself to death just thinking of how stupid I am!"
"If he was a normal boy, I agree. You were the most pathetic sight I have seen since the lamb that almost drowned in the bog. But Ben just worried about you."
"That makes no sense!"
"There is something you must know about Ben: He doesn't know shame or guilt. To him, things just happen. There are no wrong things as far as he is concerned. There are hurtful things, and he will sympathize with you. But he will never accuse you, and he will never mock you. Because guilt and shame don't exist in his world."
"Well, they exist in my world! I am dying from shame here!"
"That's why you should learn to see his world. But to be honest, I'm glad you're not coming with me. You're simply too immature."
"You cruel stupid brother! It's all your fault! Your fault, you hear?"
Yeah, he hears. And she may be right. Or perhaps not. Perhaps Ben is right, and things just happen because they are supposed to happen. All you need to do is be there. It is hard to hold on to it when he is alone. When Ben is beside him, it all seems so easy. As if everything is always going to be alright.