As Christine's triumphant return as Vitellia in La Clemenza di Tito turned into another until she was now on her sixth show in merely three months, Christine was obtaining something she never had until now. Christine was gaining confidence in herself and her abilities as a performer. Before now she had Erik pulling strings as the Opera Ghost and she had Hannibal Lecter using the influence of his name and his being a wealthy patron of the Opera ensuring she got her job.
Erik was unable to use his influence as the Opera Ghost any longer; Christine had made him promise during Clemenza so that Hannibal would not get upset. She had also made Hannibal promise not to go beyond getting her the job back. She was a success on her own and had retained her prima donna status through her own merit and based on her talents. A more confident Christine could be seen on the streets of Paris.
During these months she started living up to the expectations associated with her marital position, helping Hannibal tend to his duties. She joined sewing circles, bowing to his preference since she had no preference of her own to assert. She volunteered at the hospital despite being queasy at the sight of blood. Andre, now sitting up and awake for a good deal of the day was a popular baby and both Christine and Hannibal loved to show him off.
It was important to Christine that she set an example that not all performers were people of bad standing or questionable backgrounds. The people living on Hannibal's land were not altogether sure what to make of her, but they seemed to give her the chance. They did all like the idea that they now knew who would oversee their lands when the current Comte Lecter passed on. Even though he was only six months old and Hannibal showed no signs of passing on anytime soon it eased their minds just to know that there was a future Comte Lecter waiting to take his father's place.
Other than Christine's resolve to keep her relationship with Erik platonic didn't hold, Christine was leading a good life. She was a woman some envied and some were jealous of. She was wealthy and enjoyed dressing nicely, but she remembered what it was like not to know where her next lump of coal was going to come from. Christine was not snobbish nor did she flaunt her wealth when it wasn't necessary or prudent. She was perfectly comfortable wearing plain damask or cotton dresses around the house during her mornings and days spent with Andre.
There were events she attended with Hannibal where it was of course necessary to dress as finely as she could, she was Comtesse after all. She wasn't certain how the two men in her life felt about her metamorphosis and that is exactly what it was. She was a butterfly breaking free of its cocoon, turning into the woman she could have been and perhaps should have been once upon a time before her father's death.
Erik no longer visited Christine at her home, at least that she knew of. She was sure he did sometimes and perhaps didn't visit her room but simply observed the grounds to ensure she was safe and sleeping well.
Hannibal treated her well, which did make her feel guilty for her dishonorable actions. If he suspected anything he seemed to think her actions with the people of Paris and his subjects outweighed what she might do in the privacy of her dressing room. She hoped this was the case at any rate. He never asked her about Erik and she never mentioned him, but both husband and wife were aware that Erik was always there as a barrier between them spoken of or not.
She was at the Opera one afternoon having brought Andre with her. It was the first time she had brought him to the Opera House, never having dared broach the subject with Hannibal before now. He had been surprisingly agreeable to the idea when Christine mentioned one of her stops for the afternoon included the Opera House. One of the invalids she visited enjoyed getting flowers from a performance. Hannibal always gifted her with flowers of some sort after every performance as did other well wishers, so giving the woman flowers was never difficult for Christine to do. The older woman seemed to enjoy listening to Christine's talk of the Opera and its goings on.
No one was in the dressing room area since this was an off day. They were in between operas at the moment the most recent show having closed the previous night. Christine was counting on this and had told Erik she would bring Andre with her today when collecting the prior night's flowers to bring to Mrs. Lynne. She could not stay long, but she knew Erik was dying to see Andre.
She closed the dressing room door after she'd entered and removed Andre's little coat and hat protecting his ears from the wind. She sat with him on her lap waiting for Erik to come. She smiled brightly when she saw the mirror move and stood. She had been feeling under the weather the past few days and was grateful that the show had ended so that she might have a little while to rest up before the rehearsals for the next show began.
Erik's eyes went from Christine to Andre and back again. He was unable to believe he had had a part in creating anything so undeniably perfect. Sure, he had created works of art and been able to decipher mathematical problems and so forth, but this was something entirely different. This was a living, breathing thing that he had been responsible for bringing about.
He knew they could not talk, Christine was afraid to bring Andre into the passageway for fear he'd get scared. He reached his hand to touch the top of his son's head, cupping that part of him easily with his large palm. The soft spot there was closing well, which he was pleased to see. "He's beautiful, Christine," he whispered.
"I know," she cooed. She, of course, could talk. Anyone passing by would just think she was talking to Andre when they saw her leaving with him. But Andre obviously could not talk back yet.
Erik took Andre into his arms, amazed at how he had grown in a few months. He no longer needed to support the head, ever curious his son moved his head of his own free will peering at his surroundings. Erik clutched Andre to him, his hand at his back rubbing gently as he paced around the room with him. It amazed him and saddened him at the same time. Perhaps he should not have seen him, he would want to see him all the more now despite knowing he could not. Sooner or later, sooner then Christine would want to believe if the boy took after him, Andre would start to question who the man with the mask was. Erik doubted Christine wanted to be asked questions by Andre or by Hannibal when Andre posed the questions to him instead of his mother.
The visit wasn't nearly long enough for him, but he knew she could not stay forever. He relinquished his hold on Andre, putting his little arms back into his coat sleeves. He let Christine tend to the hat, securing it under his chin. "I cannot thank you enough for bringing him, Christine."
"I'm sorry it's not more and we cannot stay longer." Both knew kissing in front of Andre was unwise, so neither attempted anything beyond a verbal exchange of goodbyes. She let Erik gather the bouquet of flowers she would be taking to Mrs. Lynne for her and took her leave once he had left the room and the mirror was back in its place.
Hannibal was waiting for her when they returned that evening. He did not look pleased either which made Christine panic.
"Join me after you've given him to the maid, won't you?"
"Of course," she said simply and went off to see Andre was put in the hands of his maid and she was made aware he would be hungry.
She joined him in his study and closed the door when he directed her to do so.
"Is there something wrong?"
"I've been kind to you these months, have I not?"
"Of course, Comte, more than kind, which I believe I tell you frequently. If it's not frequent enough I apologize."
"Bella told me something this morning that concerns me."
"What is it?"
"She says you've been ill these past few days when you wake and are slow to want to get up."
"It is true, yes. I was grateful for the next week off so that I could try and recuperate."
"So, you're with child again then?"
"Of course not," she demanded quickly. "I've just been ill is all. It's the season."
"I suppose it is," he said clearly relieved by her answer.
"Is that all, Comte?"
"Yes, Christine, that is all. I'm sorry I had to ask. I had to know you see."
"Of course," she said and stood from her chair.
Christine was more than terrified when she left Hannibal's study. Dear Lord, thankfully she had gotten evidence of the fact she was not with child only last week. She walked as if in a daze from his study up the stairs to her room and laid down to rest. What a horrific thought, something she hadn't even thought on. Had Erik? Perhaps Erik was taking some sort of precaution to prevent that from happening again. She wasn't worldly or knowledgeable, but she knew there were things to do. She knew full well there were some couples who went through the process of making the children without wanting the actual result of children from the actions. Christine was one of those people now. What would she do if she were to get pregnant? She had no idea, but it was something obviously to think on.
Lecter left his study after Christine left and went for a walk in his gardens. Her answer had been too quick and too certain for it to be a lie. Not just that but she hadn't hesitated or visibly reacted to his question. Hannibal had suspected at first she might stray, but his suspicions hadn't borne fruit and so he had given up trying to find fault where there seemed to be none. Perhaps she was over her lover and there was room for Hannibal in her life now.
She had certainly taken to this new life of hers. She had not only taken to it, she had embraced it with such enthusiasm that Hannibal had to remind himself sometimes that she had not been raised for this purpose. She was a natural caregiver and was therefore liked by many. She was also disliked by many as well. There were those in the old guard who were suspicious of her because of her occupation and her background. Those doubters would always be there, though. And her actions thus far had really left little room for those naysayers to talk.
Later that night, Hannibal approached her room. He realized she must be looking forward to the next week or so off from the Opera House. She had been working so hard over the past few months, her work at the Opera aside. He doubted she had worked quite this hard in the past. He was admittedly worried that perhaps she had taken on too much. Sometimes he wondered if she was taking all this on to have time away from him. Some things they did together, but many didn't require his presence. In fact, most of the things she had found for herself didn't require his presence or his financial backing.
For Lecter giving money had always been easier for him. He did what was required of him, but avoided doing more than he had to. He didn't mind the functions and the meetings, but he did prefer his solitude. He would have understood if she had thrown herself into projects and causes that all it took was some money. At first he had wondered what her purpose was, assuming that it just wasn't natural for anyone to be so giving. Christine seemed to be one of those people that giving was just a part of who she was.
Lecter, too, could be giving when he wanted to be. He was generous to a fault with Christine and Andre, and his servants were treated fairly and well paid. He contributed to the Opera House, music hall, Christine's church, and the other Paris establishments he felt it prudent to offer financial backing.
He knocked lightly and upon her invitation to enter he did. He glanced quickly around her chambers before his eyes rested on her form seated in bed reading. "How are you feeling? I was told you didn't eat much."
"I seldom do, Hannibal. I've never had a large appetite."
"I imagine you don't, you are so slight. I've often wondered how you carried much less delivered a child."
Christine's face turned a deep crimson color at his statement. She closed the book she had been reading after marking her place and set it on the table by her bed. "It wasn't easy, I assure you, but I don't believe I had it more difficult than any woman does." She drew the bed sheet up along her torso and shifted slightly on the bed.
"I like it much better when you call me by my name rather than my title."
"I do try, but sometimes I feel as though you're talking to me as you might a child or an associate."
"Well, we are more or less associates are we not?"
She hesitated, glancing at her small hands in her lap. "Yes, I imagine we are. I do try."
"I know you do," he smiled with a slight nod of his head. He sat at the edge of her bed near her crossing one ankle over the other he watched her with interest. He knew she was uncomfortable with him sitting so close, but he also knew that their relationship would never go beyond that of acquaintances that happened to live under the same roof as husband and wife if he did nothing. Perhaps she did not realize he was not only attracted to her but had grown fond of her over the months.
"I will try harder," she offered him a nervous smile.
He reached to touch her hair offering her a smile. He knew his touch wouldn't comfort her or ease her nerves. "I like your hair down like this after Bella has brushed it out for the night."
"Yes. I so rarely get to see you with it down."
"I can wear it down for this week if you like."
"You would do that?"
"If it is what you wish of course. It seems the least I could do. I wear it up or partially up because it's what's expected of me."
"Then down, please. It's so thick and it always smells so good after it's dried from your washing."
She smiled slightly, lowering her gaze. "Thank you."
"Please don't look at your hands. You're my wife surely you can take a compliment without feeling embarrassed."
"I'm not embarrassed. It's one thing to receive applause for a performance and another entirely to be sitting here with you alone receiving your compliments."
"I imagine there is a difference. You have changed quite a bit since you've come to live here at my home. Good changes, at least I see them that way. I hope you do too."
"I am happy here. I worry sometimes that I will do something to upset or embarrass you, but I trust you when you say you'd let me know."
"So far you've done everything right, Christine. I imagine had I hand chosen a woman who had born and raised to live the life of a Comtesse I would have chosen differently. That is no poor reflection on you, so please don't take it that way. I'm simply being forthcoming with you. I think you've done far more for my name without realizing it or trying to and honestly that makes you more appealing."
"Yes, really," he laughed lightly. He leaned toward her and kissed her lightly, more as a test to see how she'd react. "You're so genuine and anyone who knows you or even simply sees you work can tell that you are doing these things because you want to and like to, not out of some sense of obligation."
"I see nothing I do as an obligation, Hannibal."
"Nothing," he queried.
"No," she said, shaking her head to match her response though she had clearly hesitated.
"Not even this," he asked kissing her again. This kiss was no test and it was no kiss he'd give an associate.
"No," she admitted when he broke away. Christine hadn't expected his kiss, not like that. Her heart raced and despite what she wanted her body couldn't help but react. He was so capable, there was nothing clumsy or uncertain about his kiss. She instantly felt guilt at her body's betrayal. It was easy to see why women would have been tempted into his bed, though.
While Christine admitted to being curious what someone with knowledge of the intimacies she and Erik shared might do, she knew that she didn't want to be one of many. She liked knowing that she was Erik's only. Yet at the same time, she really could not deny him. She couldn't help but recall a time or two of seeing a look he had given her that frightened her. What was she to do? She and Erik had never discussed what if anything she was to do if Hannibal came to her.
"Good," he said simply, offering her a smile. He leaned towards her bedside table to turn off the lamp there. "I've waited for months in the hopes that you would not see it as an obligation, Christine."
"Have you," she asked her voice small. He knew she wasn't feeling well, perhaps she could claim illness as a reason to delay this until another day. And perhaps another day would never come. She wished now she had forced herself to talk to Erik about this. What did he expect her to do?
"Yes," he said simply.
She jumped accompanied by an audible vocal protest when she felt his hand rest against her shoulder. She tried to tell herself that there were women who did this with their husband every day. He wasn't expecting her to do something he had no right to take even if it was against her will. He was good to her, treated her fairly and had just gotten done complimenting her actions as his wife.
"I didn't mean to startle you."
"I know. I'm just surprised is all."
"Yes," she said simply.
"Why are you surprised," he asked as his fingers worked the tie at the top of her nightdress.
"I just wasn't expecting this; I didn't think you thought of me like that."
"How could I not? You're smart, attractive, talented, and a good mother and wife."
She sighed softly, his words were kind. "Thank you. I don't know that I've been a very good wife, though."
"I couldn't ask for much better, Christine. And the part I could ask to be different we can change tonight."
"It's so sudden."
"Sudden," he laughed lightly. "We've been married for four months."
"I know. I just never imagined you wanted this from me."
"Why wouldn't I?"
"You're far more experienced than I and would think you deserve the same."
"In a whore, Christine, yes, but you're not that so no, your inexperience does not pose a problem to me. At least I know he was good to you."
"How can you tell that," she queried softly grateful that he had for the moment stopped touching her.
"I just can. You're frightened more of me then you are of the actual experience, I can tell."
"For that I'm grateful. You are lucky. I hope you know that. There are men out there who are not nice, who treat their wives like property. Actually, they might treat their property better. And you weren't even his wife. Mistresses sometimes have it better, but not often."
"Please don't talk like that, Hannibal. That's not how it was," she said pleadingly.
If either of them heard the small click of the French doors leading to her balcony indicating they had been opened neither gave pause. Certainly Erik noticed Comte seemed entirely too focused on his idea of seducing his woman to call on his keen sense of smell to aid him. Erik had the lack of light on his side as he could see without aid of lamps to light the room.
He wasn't sure how Christine would react to what he was about to do and perhaps he should have waited until Hannibal had retired to his own room down the hall. Erik could not be sure that the evening would not yet take a turn that made the blood coursing through his body heat his normally cool body to a feverish condition.
Hannibal had plans on seducing his Christine, and that was all Erik needed to know. He had stood outside on the balcony for longer than he deemed even a reasonable man would stand and listen to his words. When the lamp had been turned down, Erik's hand went instinctively to the Punjab lasso at his waist when he sensed that Hannibal Lecter had not turned off the lamp as a signal of his leaving the room.
He had come here tonight to rid Christine and him of Hannibal Lecter. After seeing Andre earlier that day he knew that he could no longer let this man who led dual lives so successfully raise his son. Christine, as his wife and mother to his son, would inherit the house so she would no longer need to live in a sparsely furnished flat wondering how she would heat her home for the night or feed their child for the day due to lack of funds. His son would be well provided for, as far as Erik knew the child was presumed to actually be Hannibal Lecter's by whoever had done the soliciting work regarding their marriage and the child's birth. The conception and birth of the baby had just occurred out of wedlock. Given Christine's occupation it wasn't unbelievable.
This was how his mind justified it at any rate, not that he'd ever needed to justify taking another's life before now. This was different. Until he had realized what was on Hannibal's mind, he had contemplated waiting a little longer. Perhaps suspicions toward Christine would be aroused if her husband were to die so soon after her return to Paris. But now as he waited for Hannibal to realize he wasn't in the room alone before actually using his readied weapon, Erik just didn't care what anyone would think. He didn't even care at that moment what Christine would think and that by doing this she might never see him again. All he cared about was protecting the only thing that was his that mattered to him. He could do without Andre if he had to, but never without Christine. And he would never forgive himself if because of him and what he had done she had to take to another man's bed. No man would allow a woman to do that for him.
He could tell when Lecter became aware of his presence. The visible stiffening of his shoulders, the cock of his head to the side Erik knew was not a reaction to Christine's words. His hands were quick as soon as he saw the man turn and pull away from Christine. Did he feel bad not giving the man a chance to defend himself? Erik thought on this briefly before he felt the give in the lasso indicating his foe's neck had been broken. No, he did not. Had Christine not been with them that day months ago outside his cave, Lecter would not have thought twice on fighting him hard. He would not have hesitated to shoot him dead there on the spot either, Erik was sure of it. The only reason he hadn't was his want to get his hands on Andre, and ultimately Christine. But Erik knew that Lecter would tire of Christine and rid himself of her just as Erik was ridding Christine of Lecter now.
Quick to go to where he had fallen on the floor, removing the lasso and ensuring the man was in fact dead, Erik turned to face Christine. She was frightened, but she didn't appear angry. At least not yet.
"Are you all right," he asked. "He didn't touch or hurt you?" His eyes fell to the unfastened tie at the collar of her nightdress and he wished he hadn't been so swift in delving out his punishment to Hannibal Lecter.
Christine clutched the bedding to her, her eyes wide. "No, he didn't hurt me. He wouldn't have hurt me, Erik."
"You wanted to make love to him then?"
"No. Of course I didn't, but I don't think he really would have, Erik."
"Oh really," he said his fingers finding the undone tie. "And this is untied thusly because you are unwell then?"
"No," audibly trembling with her response.
"Who remains in the house at this time of night?" Erik knew she was still more than likely in shock over the events and was hoping he could get her to cooperate for the moment before the shock wore off.
"No one," she said automatically.
"Christine," he said as tenderly as he could given the circumstances. "Listen to me," he pleaded. "I couldn't let him do it. I'm sorry. I should never have seen and held Andre, but the thought that that man was loving my son and possibly you as I should be was driving me absolutely insane."
"But we never did, Erik. I promise you."
"Can you honestly tell me, Christine that you believe he didn't want you?"
"Up until tonight no," she said not able to look anywhere but at Erik.
"Well, you won't have to worry about him wanting to again. And if you'd rather be rid of me as well, I understand."
"I don't know, Erik. This is too much, I'm a party to a murder. What have you gotten me mixed up in, Erik? And why? He would not have hurt me."
"Christine, have you forgotten that he would have killed me? Have you forgotten that he took you away from me? Have you forgotten what he would have done to you had he found out that our relationship continued?"
"Christine, I will not bother to dwell on the things that I know of him, but he was not a good man. He was a dangerous man, perhaps even more dangerous than I ever was. Please know that I could never have lived a peaceful day knowing you were with him and that one day he would find you expendable, useless, or no longer necessary."
"I knew you were concerned," she admitted.
"Yes, I was. Now I'm going to move him. Just leave me to take care of everything and then if you want me to go I'll go. But you realize something I hope."
"What," she asked curiously.
"We can be together now."
"No, no. You'd stay here. This is our son's home now. Surely you've thought on that, haven't you? This is yours, Christine. You will no longer have to worry about struggling to make enough money to feed yourself. You will no longer have to live in the Opera, I can come here to see you. I can stay with Andre while you perform."
"I can't think on all of this now, Erik. Please just go take care of what it is you need to take care of."
"Should I come back?"
"You can, I don't know that I'll have anything to say."
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com