As promised, the epilogue. There's a longer a/n at the end:
While Ivankov insists the girls come to work for him willingly, the "handlers" he employs tell a very different story. The men would not go on record with their names or any other identifying information, but having spent three months undercover with them, I can confirm that the stories they shared are as true as they are terrifying. "Mikhail" tells of targeting teenage girls in Moscow nightclubs, drugging drinks, and packing the kidnapped girls in shipping containers with little food and water to be sent to "buyers" overseas….
"Hey," Edward said from the doorway. "What are you reading?"
Bella shifted her computer off her lap and turned the screen away, feeling mildly guilty that Edward had caught her reading Riley's article. Then she told herself she had nothing to hide; she only wanted to see how he was doing.
"It's Riley's new piece for The ICIJ. It's really good."
"Is it?" Edward's expression didn't change, but there was a flicker of something in his eyes, an old uncertainty that still sprang up now and then. Bella smiled and reached out her hand, ready to banish it once again. If she did it enough times, eventually it would quit showing up. A trickle of water could shape the Grand Canyon, given enough time, and Bella had nothing but time to work on Edward.
"Yeah, come read. It's the one about the Russian mafia and human trafficking. Do you remember me telling you about that one?"
"Oh, right," Edward crossed the living room and settled next to her on the couch. Bella passed him the laptop. "He was going undercover, right?"
"It's pretty brilliant, actually. He managed to get access to people that no one from the outside ever talks to. I swear, the places he goes are insane."
Edward threw her a small smile. "You could stop sounding so impressed."
Bella wrapped her hands around his arm and leaned into his side, kissing the edge of his jaw. "You know it's not like that. Come on, this is good news. He's doing great. It's weird, but I don't think he'd have ever been able to do this kind of reporting as a human."
Edward shrugged, still reading the article. "Makes it easier to face down blood-thirsty Russian thugs when you're invincible. And perhaps more blood-thirsty than they are."
"He hasn't killed anybody in a long time," Bella scolded gently.
Edward chuckled. "I know. It was a joke. One that I'm sure he wouldn't find funny."
"He'll probably never laugh at your jokes, Edward, just on principal."
Edward absently pressed a kiss to her forehead as he read. "No, I doubt he will. And that's fine."
Bella settled her head on his shoulder, closing her eyes and breathing him in. No matter how much time she spent with him, his effect on her never diminished. Somehow she never felt quite whole unless he was at her side.
Not once had she doubted that she wanted to spend every moment of her eternity with Edward, but that didn't mean she didn't still think about Riley, and still feel guilty about his fate. The first year had been the hardest. When he left the Cullens, he vanished, and none of them heard a word from him. Alice got vague snatches of his future, just impressions of cities, faceless humans—dead bodies. Jasper worked from Alice's wispy visions and narrowed down his whereabouts from newspaper reports. He'd become adept at noticing oddly-reported murders and could recognize them for what they were: vampire kills.
So while at times they'd had an idea of where he was, they let him be. Carlisle insisted that his choices were his own and tracking him down wouldn't change his mind. For over a year they watched him from a distance and hoped for the best.
Knowing he was out there on his own, killing humans to survive, was especially hard for Bella to accept because his lost year was also the happiest she'd ever known. Riley's fate was the only dark spot on a time that was otherwise pure bliss.
She and Edward spent almost six months at the lodge completely alone. They checked in with the family in Alaska once a week, but outside of that, no one bothered them and they shut themselves off from the world. Every day Bella found herself more in love with Edward than she had been the day before. Such happiness would have been inconceivable to her if she weren't the one living it, loving him. The lodge and the woods and mountains surrounding it would forever remain her favorite place on the planet, and she and Edward now considered it "home."
After six months, Alice decided they'd had enough alone time and she came to visit with Jasper. Once Alice realized that Bella and Edward had staked their claim on the lodge and would always keep a residence there, she began planning improvements. It took longer to accomplish because they were so far from civilization, but within a year, the lodge boasted internet access, an expanded master bath and a new library. The construction was accomplished in the same way the lodge had been originally built; they cut the rocks out of the surrounding mountains by hand.
That endeavor had actually ended up being fun for everyone. Carlisle, Esme, Emmett and Rose all came to help. The project gave everyone something to focus on and the time together allowed the rest of the family to finally get to know Bella. By the end of that fall, Rosalie had stopped talking about Bella's change as a terrible tragedy and Bella considered her almost—kind of—a friend. The Cullens and their love did a lot to make up for what Bella had lost in her human life. She'd always miss her parents and friends, but she was happy and loved in her new life, so she couldn't feel all that sorry for herself. She kept tabs on her parents from a distance, reassured that they were moving on, despite losing her.
During their second year together, Edward and Bella began to work on her human tolerance, and by the end of it, she had no problems taking trips with Edward to the towns dotting the U.S. border. She and Alice even spent a weekend in Alberta without incident. There were plans to spend the upcoming summer at the family home in Rochester, and if that went well, then the Cullens would reunite in one house and Bella would finally go back to college with her new "family." She knew she'd been more than ready for it for a long time, but she'd also been in no hurry to leave her secluded paradise with Edward.
A year after he'd left, Riley reached out to them. He called Bella first, from a hotel outside of Detroit. It had been a difficult conversation for both of them. He felt ashamed; she felt guilty. Riley confessed that he was sick of himself, sick of the animal without morals he'd become. Bella pleaded with him to go back to Alaska and try again. Riley couldn't bear to face Carlisle, who'd been so kind and supportive, with so much literal blood on his hands.
In the end, it was Edward who convinced him. He took the phone from Bella and in one of the more uncomfortable conversations in history, he told Riley about his own early days and the way he'd been unconditionally welcomed back into the fold.
Riley went back to Alaska and re-committed to a vegetarian diet. It took time for the blood lust to leave him the second time, but it did. He began writing again. In a fit of boredom, he created a new online identity and started posting comments in all the old political and current event blogs he used to frequent. Soon his new internet pen name began to gain something of a reputation. He hopscotched across the internet from the safety of Alaska while he learned to control himself again. By the time he was offered his first freelance reporting gig, he was sufficiently strong enough to accept it. Six months ago he'd been hired on at The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, an online network of reporters from all over the world. Immediately, Riley requested an overseas assignment and he'd been working steadily in the most dangerous parts of the Balkans and Eastern Europe ever since.
"This is really good," Edward finally said.
"Mmm, I know, right?" Bella stirred on his shoulder, and then slipped her hands around his waist, snuggling in closer.
"Traditional journalists would never be able to do what he's doing. Those smugglers he interviewed? He's probably the only reporter to ever get that close to those guys. Well, to get close and live to tell about it anyway."
"I know he's got an unfair advantage, with the indestructability and the aura of terror he emits, but I'm glad to see him making something of this finally."
Edward set the laptop on the table and shifted to put his arm around Bella. "I am, too."
"I am! I never wished him ill. I just wished him onto another planet once or twice. But you're right; seeing him excelling in his career is good news."
"And excelling at everything else, too, according to Alice," Bella muttered.
Edward leaned back to look at her. "What do you mean?"
She rolled her eyes. "Seems she's gotten glimpses of more than his business dealings."
"Edward! Don't be dense. Sex. She's seen him having sex. Lots of it, apparently."
"With who?" Edward's head swam with a mix of horror and prurient interest at the idea of Bella and Alice gossiping about other people's sex lives.
"Every immortal female in Eastern Europe, says Alice."
Bella laughed. "What's so hard to get? He's turned into some kind of a vampire lothario, or something. I guess he's really embracing his new reality."
Edward paused for a moment, considering. "Does that bother you?"
"Me? No, of course not. It's kind of funny, but it's none of my business."
"Wait," Edward said after a moment. "Eastern Europe… has he—?" Tanya had been back in St. Petersburg for over a year now refurbishing an eighteenth- century villa she'd bought there.
"I have no idea," Bella cut him off, holding up a hand. "I didn't ask and I don't want to know."
Edward made a small grumble of distaste.
Bella shifted uncomfortably. "Would that bother you? If Tanya—?"
Edward's eyes widened. "Not at all. Her life is her own. We're friends. Like you and Riley."
Bella scoffed. "I don't know if he'd call us friends. But we're friendly, and maybe that's enough."
Edward smiled at her. "I'm okay with that."
"Hush," Bella scolded him playfully, giving him a gentle shove. He laughed and sat back up, his hands seeking her out on instinct. She fit so perfectly in them, his fingers curled around her hips, his thumbs finding the little hollow behind her hipbones. Bella sighed and shifted closer. That was usually all it ever took—a look, a hand, a stray brush of a finger—and the connection between them sprang to life. Edward never could have imagined it, this vibrating intensity just from her presence at his side. Every hour, every day, for almost three years now and still growing stronger.
He dipped his head, kissing the side of her neck and lingering there to inhale the scent of her. It no longer brought him to his knees, but it still held him in its power nonetheless. She owned him, body and soul, and always would.
Bella moaned and her head fell forward. "Now?" she whispered.
Edward slid his hands down her thighs to her knees, pushing them apart to make room for himself.
"Mmm-hmm, now. Pretty soon we'll be living with the family and the spontaneous sex in the living room is going to have to stop."
"I hadn't thought of that." Edward began working her shirt up, exposing her stomach. She shivered when his knuckles brushed her cool, ivory skin.
"Yeah, that part isn't so great. Neither is the noise thing."
"I remember that part. Rose and Emmett stayed here, remember?"
"He's an animal," Edward groused. "He doesn't even attempt to be subtle about it."
Bella tipped her head back and laughed. Edward kissed her throat and nipped at the edge of her collarbone. "You think you're going to do better, huh? You can get pretty loud, you know."
Edward lifted his head from her chest and smiled at her, a crooked, joyful grin that always left her stunned. "Look who's talking." His hand slipped between her legs and she cried out.
"Guess we'll have to practice this," she said with a pant.
Edward pushed up until his face was over hers. "Let's see how quiet we can be, shall we?" He silenced the next noise she made with his mouth.
Much later, they lay together on the couch, bare limbs tangled, Edward staring at the low-burning fire while Bella traced her fingertips over the planes and dips of his chest.
"Are you sure you want to go back to college?" he murmured with a teasing smile. "Staying here is sounding awfully good."
"It's not about college, Edward. That's irrelevant."
"So what's it about?"
"Family. Your family."
"Yours, too," he corrected automatically.
"Yes, mine, too. But first they were yours. And you've been away a long time."
"We've seen them several times," he protested.
"I know, but it's not the same." She looked down, watching her hand settle low on his abdomen. "I love you so much and I know you so well. But they helped make you who you are. In a way, I don't feel like I'll really know all of you until we're with them again."
Edward ran his fingers up her arm and over her shoulder, marveling once again at this glorious girl who'd blasted into his existence like a meteor, blown it to bits and then put the pieces back together with sublime perfection. "You know me, Bella. You know every worthwhile part of me because you made them."
She sighed and pressed a kiss to his chest. "So now I want to know the worthless parts of you. The part that cheats at Halo with Emmett—"
Edward made a choked sound of outrage.
"You know it's true. Esme told me so."
"Emmett just doesn't play it right and blames that on me."
Bella laughed. "Okay, okay. We'll settle the Halo issue when we get to Rochester. The point is, it's time to go home."
Edward sobered and cupped her face—her precious, beautiful face—in his hand. "Yes, it is. But you know you will always be my home."
She turned her face and kissed his palm. "I will. Always."
An explanation, because so many people asked: Dog Star is the common name for Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. I just liked the imagery, no hidden meaning in it.
Many, many thanks to Arfalcon for beta'ing this for me. I learn something from every story I write, but I learned so much from her. She's an amazing editor, equal parts unforgiving critical eye and enthusiastic cheerleader. I owe her so much.
And my final thanks is to you readers. My life has been pretty busy this past year, so I couldn't interact individually with all of you the way I could in the past. I'm still so grateful for every review and pm. There were times when a kind review was the only bright spot in my day. I'm so thankful to be a part of this lovely, supportive community. You all enrich my life.