Chapter 31

Epilogue

First, there was the terrible, tearing pain that seemed never to end.

Then the burred mewling of a newborn child, tinged with the clarity of silver bells. The lovely, pleading sound called her back from the feathery edges of oblivion, and the roaring in her ears cleared for her to hear what was spoken next.

"It is a boy, ma'am."

The young mother gasped with remembered pain, the sweat sheen slick and damp on her forehead. Her jaw, clamped tightly shut for hours, creaked as she moved it. A name, two syllables long, escaped from between her thick, cracked lips: the breath rushed from her open throat at the last consonant, her teeth crashing together, as she shivered from the sudden coldness, a part of herself now gone.

The doctor smiled, his maroon eyes warm as he cleaned and swaddled the squirming bundle of new life. "I will call him in immediately, ma'am. He would have my head if I didn't."

Christine felt her heartbeat slow to a regular rhythm as she was finally able to suck in a lungful of cool clean air. As she breathed out, she said, "Thank you, Hannibal."

His hand twitched and he was glad that he had already laid the child in its mother's arms.

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The scene that met his eyes when he stepped out from the bedroom into the parlor reminded him of a bullfight. His wife stood not far from the door from which he had just emerged as Erik circled around her, trying his best to move closer to the door. She was engaging him in conversation, which he wasn't hearing at all, and keeping herself between the nervous man and the bedroom door.

Both heads turned as Hannibal stepped into the room. The scene was broken almost immediately. Erik made a desperate yet graceful dash towards the door, and this time Clarice stepped aside to let him pass.

Erik stopped at the threshold next to Hannibal. He ran his hands over both sides of his uncovered face and into his sparse hair, swallowing hard before stepping into the room. Hannibal hesitated but let him pass. They would talk later.

Clarice crossed the room to him and took his hand in hers. His hand was damp and slightly raw from when he had washed the blood from his hands. Perhaps he had scrubbed a little harder than necessary.

"Dare I ask if the child…?"

Hannibal shook his head slightly. "No parents could wish for a more beautiful child."

Clarice let out the breath she had been holding. "They never appeared worried in the days leading up until today. But I couldn't help wondering if deep down, they were."

He led her by the hand to a sofa where they sat down. "If they were, Erik would certainly have asked me before going into that room. Why the sudden curiosity, my dear?"

"It simply feels so unreal. This life they have created, this life that we have created. It feels so fragile, as if it could break at any moment, as if the slightest reminder…" She shook herself, as if she were clearing her head. "I am so happy for them. Heaven knows they deserve it."

Hannibal did the most unexpected thing. He laughed. And then he wrapped an arm around her slim waist. "Oh Clarice, you continue to doubt even now. It should be me in that position, not you. If anyone deserved to be happy more than those two, it is you."

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Hannibal and Clarice had received the invitation from the Eames residence a month earlier. By then, it had been nearly a year since the day they had arrived in the New York harbor. They had driven the overwhelmed couple through the towering buildings of the city until they reached a quiet and well-to-do suburbian haven. Once there Hannibal had pressed a housing receipt and several spare passports and birth certificates into their hands before slipping away.

They had not seen Erik and Christine since.

At first, Hannibal and Clarice had simply been too busy simultaneously forging new identities and enjoying the proper honeymoon they had never had. And then they began to argue over the wisdom of remaining in the States. The American people had a long memory for the horrors of the past. After one too many close calls, Clarice insisted that they would only invite more trouble while Hannibal insisted with equal fervor that they must stay.

"If I am to be through with the life of a criminal, then I also refuse to remain a fugitive any longer," he said.

The argument last nearly three months. By then Clarice had gotten a job managing a small community theater, and Dr. Lecter had successful taken up his original profession in the last place that law enforcement would think to look.

They kept in contact with the young couple by sending them news of Paris, for they retained connections that the former Phantom of the Opera and gothic starlet had never had.

That was how Erik and Christine knew of the mysterious cave-in that sealed off the Opera basement caverns forever. Soon afterwards, Andre had retired as manager of the Opera and the position had passed to Madame Giry.

That was how they knew that Philippe had not disowned his brother after his aborted marriage plans. Not long afterwards, the Vicomte de Chagny had married a proper young lady of a noble Dover family and Philippe was quick to report how he had never truly doubted his brother's devotion to their venerable family.

For the rest of the year, they had wrestled with the question of when to visit their friends. They had already decided that the next time they saw Erik and Christine, they would be completely honest with them. They were now as safe as they could possibly be, and there was no reason to continue the deception any longer.

Then Erik had sent them a letter announcing Christine's pregnancy and extending an invitation to their home. Upon learning the news, Clarice would not hear of burdening a young mother-to-be with the knowledge of who the child's godparents-to-be really were.

Which is why as Hannibal related the events that occurred in the birthing room, Clarice bristled with indignation. "Christine knows? What could Erik have been thinking, telling his pregnant wife that a pair of convicted felons was going to be present at the birth of their first child?"

Hannibal chuckled. "Well, my dear, they rather fit that unflattering description themselves."

"That's not the issue, Hannibal, and you know it. I swear, you act like an insensitive male far too often simply to annoy me."

Despite the anathema surrounding her name, Clarice had had one mentor whom she had trusted with her life and who in return fought for her place in the agency with all his considerable power. When Jack Crawford had died, Clarice had spiraled out of control and thrown herself into her work with almost reckless abandon, clinging to a constant stream of activity as a lifeline, no matter how dangerous and menial the tasks. It was not long afterwards that she learned that Hannibal Lecter had been found in Europe. After the file had made its rounds through the office, shoved from hands to hands as if diseased, she had taken the case right away.

Jack Crawford would have felt shocked and betrayed if he had lived to see the choice Clarice had made to stay with Hannibal, but perhaps one day he might have understood. He would have understood the lure of a powerful figure that cherished her as much as he despised all else.

Crawford would not, however, have ever believed the sight that he would have seen now. The mismatched pair sat together on a sofa, teasing each other like an old married couple as in the next room, their godson opened his bright blue eyes for the first time and gurgled happily upon seeing his disbelieving father's face.

Hannibal rested his hand lightly on Clarice's knee as he kissed the hollow of her neck in an instinctive, tender gesture of affection. Crawford would not have gone so far as to think that Hannibal could have the capacity to drug her into such a state of seemingly genuine bliss. But it would have been easier than thinking that a human soul was capable of such change.

Crawford certainly would have responded much like Erik did when Hannibal discussed his new job, the next week.

"I have read of Clarice's success with her community theater but what occupation have you chosen to take?" Erik asked.

"We have more than adequate finances to last us the rest of our days."

"Which I am sure was true as well when you were 30 years of age. You could never stay idle for long."

"I am working at a small local institution as a psychologist for children."

Erik blinked. Hannibal looked at him with a smirk on his face that could almost be interpreted as gleeful.

"Despite the changes for the better that Clarice has wrought in you, I doubt that learning to jest was one of them, so I will assume that you are serious."

"Nothing could seem more unlikely, I realize. Which is why I originally assumed the position to hide from the law. But contrary to all reason, I found that I quite enjoyed it. The problems of children are simpler, and they don't lie as much as adults do."

Erik scoffed again but he no longer appeared disbelieving as he said, "Therefore I am sure you understand my reasons for telling Christine the truth about the two of you?"

"We would have greatly preferred to tell her personally."

"And when would that be? After the birth? After she had blessed you as her child's godfather? I've deceived her enough for a lifetime, and I would have felt responsible if she had not known."

Hannibal gave a great sigh. "We intended only the best, you must believe that."

"I do, but I also believe that you greatly underestimate her. Christine the girl turned and ran when confronted with something that she feared. Christine the woman is taking your wife shopping tomorrow for clothes for the baby."

"Heaven help us."

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"You don't enjoy shopping, do you, Clarice?"

"I can think of a few things I would rather be doing, some of which involve thumbscrews."

Christine laughed brightly. The instinctual maturity that seemed to settle upon new mothers like a thick cloak had not robbed her of her girlish happiness. "Tell me truthfully now. Is it the shopping that unnerves you or the fear that I am doing this to cover up my mistrust of you?"

"Both."

"Do you really think so little of me, Clarice? Would you believe that I would remember only your…and Hannibal's past and forget how you have helped us, and others, since then?"

"But Raoul…"

"What happened is as much your fault as it was mine Or Erik's. Or his own. I'm through with shoving the burden of blame onto others, and I won't have you taking it onto yourself."

"How have you changed so much, Christine?"

"Because of you, madam. That is one thing you can safely take credit for."

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Erik held a garish patchwork of blue, yellow, and pink cloth in his hands. As neither he nor Christine had had any means of knowing the sex of the child beforehand, they had prepared for each eventuality. The sight would have been humorous were it not for the unmistakable look of utter devotion in his eyes. The long skeletal fingers that had caused so much death and pain now moved to adjust the blanket around his child's face to keep him from getting chilled.

"Have you or Clarice ever thought about children?"

The question was unexpected and Hannibal looked up from his rather excellent brandy with a start. The surprise dissipated quickly from his expression and was replaced with wry humor.

"I wasn't under the impression that there was any thought involved. In this day and age, children are hardly something you can predict with any confidence."

Erik scoffed. "Do you expect me to believe that? You are the most knowledgeable doctor of the era. Surely you wouldn't be reduced to leaving things to chance."

Hannibal looked at his brandy glass thoughtfully. "No. I wouldn't." He put the glass down and sighed almost inaudibly before looking up at Erik. "The answer is no, Erik. The decision was Clarice's and I will respect it."

"May I ask why?"

Hannibal sat upright in his chair, leaning forward upon the cushion. "We are in many ways alike, Erik, but we will never be the same person. Some things…are best not remembered."

Erik nodded. His son shifted in his arms and his fingers gave to accommodate the movement. He winced slightly as the child's head pressed against the jagged scar on his left forearm, but he did not stir. "And what about the things in your lives that are worth remembering? And of those there are many." His voice was soft. "Do you ever regret that they will be forgotten?"

Hannibal seemed to consider this for awhile. "Yes. It is only natural. And no. The best part of our history has already been passed to more able hands." He looked up and the ghost of a smile appeared across his features. "Do you think that we would have expended so much effort on the two…three of you if we had not partially been motivated by selfishness? We saw in you the chance that I never had. And the chance that was robbed from Clarice by her inconceivable choice to stay with me. The chance to hold the adoration of the world in your hands. On that note, Mr. Eames, I understand that your wife has become quite the budding starlet at the Met."

The other man smirked. "That I cannot deny." At another movement from the bundle in his arms, Erik's eyes flew downwards to the face of his sleeping child. He made another completely unnecessary adjustment of the blanket and let the back of his fingers linger on the tiny cheek. "Nor can I deny that none of this would have ever happened without you. But that time I spent in your house—I truly hated you at times, I despised you. That is true as well." He sighed and looked up. "But in the end, I…thank you, Hannibal. I thank you, my friend."

Maroon eyes stared into amber ones, and at that moment they both realized that nothing more needed to be said.

In a swift movement, Hannibal got up from his chair and crossed over to father and son. Startled by the sudden movement, the baby awoke, his bright eyes blinking in the light. Hannibal Lecter's finger was not entirely steady as he lowered it to the child's face. The baby grabbed the finger in a tiny fist before promptly shoving it in his mouth. Too young to judge, too young to be afraid, the child gurgled happily under the gaze of the two giants he held in enthralled silence.

"What will you name him?" Hannibal said at last, quietly.

Erik looked deep into his son's eyes before leaning forward to press a kiss to his forehead.

"Luc. For you have given us light."

FIN

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A/N: All similarities between the "Eames" alias and the famous Parisian/American operatic soprano Emma Eames are entirely coincidental. Really.

I had an unbelievably difficult time writing this final chapter. And it turned out that it wasn't only because I was working two jobs and I didn't want this story to end. When I showed a rough draft to my friend, she told me, "I know why you're having a hard time writing this, everyone's too damn happy."

Too true, my friend, but they deserved it.

Still though, I had mixed feelings as I selected "Complete" from the drop-down menu. On one hand, I am unbelievably glad about finally wrapping up a monstrous offspring that was originally supposed to be no more than 10 chapters. Goodness knows I'll have so much more free time now. On the other hand, heaven knows I will miss it.

But on the third hand, I don't forsee laying this story to rest anytime soon. I'm in the process of rewriting chapter-by-chapter to make the sketchy writing towards the beginning better. Rather than take this entire story down, I will only replace chapters. And since doesn't give notices to such activities, I will also be reposting on "unending-night dot com / fiction" if you would like to follow my undertaking.

Revisions will be significant, and the resulting story will hopefully be more coherent and probably a lot shorter. In fact, Chapter One is already up there now, go have a look! (after reviewing of course)

And now for some brief thanks. Thank you to all of my reviewers, but especially Fantome who has unerringly followed this tale from the very beginning. I believe she even put up with my four-month lapse between one of the chapters… All of your comments mean more to me than you will ever know. And to all of you lurkers and non-reviewing readers, I love you too for racking up the numbers of my hits counter. But as this is your last chance EVER to review, please do consider clicking on the little blue button on the bottom left. It won't take much time. :)

Enough rambling, I hope you enjoyed the story! See you all next time, I'm sure the muse won't stay away for long.