Title: Fledgling

Which fairytale inspired you: The Ugly Duckling

Rating & Any Needed Warning: PG-13

Word Count: 7000

Pairing: Bella

Summary:Bella is sure she is NOT a Cullen. After all she looks more like Hermione Granger than her own mother. Will a new boy in town convince her she actually has shed her baby feathers?

Disclaimer: Characters are the property of Stephenie Meyer, and they recite Macbeth, which is Shakespeare's. Me, I'm just this person at the keyboard. Last I checked I owned it... Thanks to Kas90 for her quick beta turn-around

Bella entered the tenth grade with the same dread she had faced the ninth. Her parents assured her that she was not adopted, that she would be as beautiful as her sisters when she grew into her own. She was not convinced. Even at fifteen, Rosalie had never looked this awkward. She'd been skinnier with knobby knees but still had gorgeous hair and skin. Alice was worse. She'd never even been lanky. She just went from a pretty little girl to a pretty young woman, no awkward adolescence for her. The boys were little better. Jasper resembled Rosalie and had the same beanpole status for a year or two, bumping into things until he had adjusted to his new size. Emmett's changes seemed as smooth as Alice's. He was a stocky little boy who became a blocky young man, all muscle and hair. He grew a lot of hair. It was kind of gross at first, but like all of Bella's family, as soon as it was in, he trimmed, and shaved, and looked amazing with only minutes of prep time.

Bella was compared to her two beautiful sisters most often. Rosalie was blonde and statuesque, whereas Alice was pixie-like and graceful. However, she also found herself in the shadow of her two brothers -— Jasper and Emmett, both tall, well-muscled and the subject of every girl's attention.

The worst had to be her parents, though. Esme looked like Bella would have, if Bella had been beautiful. Their hair and eyes shared colour, but that was as far as the resemblance went. Esme's hair curled in sultry waves below her shoulders, and her eyes bore flecks of gold. Bella's hair was frizzy and constantly tangled. She was more often likened to Hermione Granger than her own mother. Her eyes were a dull brown and set too close together. They tended to water at the worst times, too.

In short, she was the sore thumb sticking out of her family. Her father, the talented, renowned doctor, had consented to let her consult with some of his colleagues, those in larger centers who specialized in plastic surgery, but all had turned her away. There was nothing wrong with her nose, her lips, her figure; they just weren't exemplary like her siblings'.

She slaved on her hair after finally finding a de-tangler that worked. Sadly, the frizz was no better, so she tended to braid her hair or tie it up in an attempt to tame it. She had developed a figure at last, breasts that were less than average but not puny sized, and her pear shape wasn't unattractive, just less lovely than Rose's or Alice's.

This was it, though, the last year playing second fiddle to them. Soon she'd be the ONLY Cullen at Forks High School! Both Jasper and Emmett received the magic paper, a diploma, saying they wouldn't be at school with her this year. Emmett had taken an extra year to manage to pass enough classes, but that didn't stop Texas offering him a football scholarship. Jasper was putting all his newly acquired free time into his band. Not that she wouldn't miss them...they both treated her like a tiny princess, never mentioning how inferior she was to them. Of course, Things at the school hadn't changed much in their absence. Her mousy, unimpressive status had not changed over the year, and she wasn't much surprised. Her sisters filled the spotlight and picked up all the slack the boys' departure might have had on the popular circle. The most attention she had received was when she went sprawling, tripping over her own feet, even now. But when they left...

She could NOT wait! She would still be of middling popularity, middling beauty, but, hell, just not being judged against them would do wonders for her self-esteem. If only she could get away from her parents...

Slumping in her chair never added to her attractiveness either. Her mom had told her so and always recommended she straighten herself, but it never took. Defeated all the time, she just naturally slumped. She was going to be a hunchback, and really, would that be so much worse?

Ben Cheney came to sit at the table she shared with Angela and Jessica. Angela coloured as she always did when Ben joined them. At least she had chosen a crush within their circle. Bella hadn't chosen one at all. What was the point? Jessica's eyes tended to drift to Mike Newton, as if that was going to happen. He was the quarterback and a senior who was following his center, her brother, to Texas the following year.

"There's a new family moving to town," Jessica said. "They bought the old Swan house. You remember Charlie Swan, Bella? He and his wife had a daughter about the same age as us, until the wife took off with her. Charlie's been transferred to the Port Angeles department. Apparently, he's too good for our little town." Jessica stuck her pointed nose up in the air, not helping her appearance either. Everyone was afraid of her nose and her tongue. Either could skewer you easily. Her mother was the worst gossip in Forks.

"Yeah, I remember. I liked Charlie. I can't think why he'd asked for a transfer. He loves Forks." She'd always had a soft spot for the burly police chief. She'd never crossed paths with him more than occasionally, but he was so...average, so normal. Sometimes...

She shook her head, ridding herself of stupid daydreams. She wasn't a swan. She wasn't going to grow into a beautiful bird and show her siblings how wonderful she was. She was going to be awkward and ugly forever.

"So, who is moving in?" asked Angela, cuing Jessica to continue.

"A lawyer and his wife. No idea why Forks. I mean, not like we have much call for lawyers around here." She shrugged. "They aren't moving until the summer, anyway."

Bella blocked it out, trying to return to her stupor until her sisters left the premises. There they were, an example of social perfection, giggling in musical chimes to what Mike, Tyler or Conner were saying. The last two were in Jasper's band. They had even landed a contract and would be recording with him in Seattle over the summer. She was happy for the band but wished they would just move to Seattle. Mike was preening over the scholarship he'd gotten to A&M to join Emmett.

Emmett was a great brother, when he wasn't outshining her, and Bella missed his pranks, now that it had been a year. On the other hand, one less face to be compared to...lack of laughter seemed a small price. Alice would be gone after the summer as well, overseas to Oxford. Rose wasn't going anywhere, of course. She was going to marry some rich man and live in luxury. She was just looking for the right man. She would attend college after a year just to fish for a lawyer or doctor.

"Oh God," Bella groaned, almost banging her head on the table. "The lawyer has a son, doesn't he?" Jessica hadn't mentioned it, but suddenly Bella knew exactly why Rose was taking a year off before college.

"Um... yeah, I think so. Why?"

"Rose is gold-digging." This time Bella did bang her head once or twice — lightly, listening to the thunk more than aiming for pain. It sounded like doors slamming. Tossing her bush of hair back as she sat up, she added, "She's sticking around Forks for a year to appraise and try to land the son. Go Away!" she yelled suddenly at no one and everyone. She then covered her face and hung her head again. "I'm such a freak."

Angela patted her back. She was the best friend Bella could have asked for. She wasn't beautiful, but she wasn't ugly, either. She wasn't genius smart but could help Bella with homework. She wasn't a freak, either. "You're not a freak, Bella. You just have more pressure than most. I'm sure this guy won't be worth Rose's time. She'll be gone before you know it."

"God, I hope so. You know those fairy tales, where there are the ugly stepsisters. I'm like the opposite. Mom and Dad swear I'm not adopted, but seriously! Look at me! Do I look like a Cullen?"

There were shakes of heads around the table.

"I'm the ugly stepsister." Bella put her head down again while Angela continued to rub her back.

"Well, I'm off. I have cheerleader practice." Bella glared at Jessica. She'd only made the squad because so many of their fellow sophomores were uncoordinated. Also, she was the back up. Next year, when Rose wasn't captain, she might be a regular. "Lauren has some tips for me." Her voice was light and bubbly. Bella made a note not to call Jessica for anything if she could help it. Good luck to her if she managed to break into that circle. It meant Bella's curse wasn't contagious.

Bella walked to the salon. Her hairdresser, Monica, swore she had a new conditioner that was guaranteed to work. It was ultra-moisturizing with a bonding agent to help not only sink into the hair but keep the strands drawn together, so they couldn't fly away in every direction. Bella was willing to bet on coming home with the same nest of hair she always had, but Esme was quick to thrust the money into her hand.

"I have a good feeling about this one, honey," she said with her warm smile. Bella loved her mother, she did. Esme was a beautiful person inside. She was also beautiful on the outside, and Bella's affection was always a little soured by that. She enjoyed her family best when blindfolded — surrounded only by the loving comments and voices. As soon as she passed a mirror, of which there were many in the house, the illusion shattered, and she remembered how ill-fit she was.

She noticed a van in front of the tiny, white Swan house. A young man carried a box out and down the ramp. His hair was tousled, coated in dust, but still begging for fingers to run through it. His shirt was torn, but that just showed the well-developed chest it would have normally concealed, and his jeans were frayed but fairly tight. Bella couldn't help but stop to watch a perfectly shaped behind disappear through the door.

"Bella!" She recognized her sister's voice and tried not to cringe. Rosalie was the least friendly of her siblings, but she was making an effort now that it was only the two of them in the house. Alice had gone to Oxford and Jasper seemed to be constantly at one gig or another.

"Hi, Rose," she mumbled.

"I didn't expect to see you."

"I have a hair appointment. Monica is sure this is the one." Bella rolled her eyes, showing her lack of optimism.

"Hmm, well, I hope it is. Did you see that delectable specimen? Edward Masen Junior. I'm still planning out how to 'bump' into him. That's why I'm staying over here." Bella had walked toward Rose's voice instinctively, and had now realized they were across the street from the house, the van partially blocking the view. "Well, I'm planning it now. Can't pass up the opportunity to meet him, can I?"

Bella sighed. "No, I suppose not. I'm sure you two will make beautiful babies. I'm late." She pushed past Rosalie a little more roughly than she would have normally.

"Oh, Bella," her sister groaned, looking to the sky before looping her arm through Bella's. "I'll walk with you. I'll sit with you. And if this conditioner doesn't work, I'll shave your head and find you a gorgeous wig."

Bella narrowed her eyes at Rosalie, but when she did, she saw the thousand watt smile that said she was joking. Bella couldn't help but chuckle. "Yeah, or maybe a designer hat? One about this big?" She held her hands out a foot from her head on all sides.

"Oooh, I know Alice had some like that in her collection. She couldn't take everything with her. Maybe she left one behind." She laughed, which sounded like a tinkling of bells, and Bella tried to cheer up. Just don't look at her, or yourself, she told herself.

The conditioner, however, wasn't a complete flop, and Bella took a bottle home with her. Maybe the first day of school this year would be a new start. She reminded herself not to get her hopes too high. Still, her braces had come off over the summer, and she'd raided what Alice had left behind, and some of it fit her. If there was going to be a transforming season, this would be it.

Taking a seat in English, Bella watched the door as the familiar classmates wandered through. Angela was quick to fill Bella in on what she'd done while away, and Jessica hijacked the conversation with her own summer vacation tales until both were silenced by the young man entering the room.

It was like someone had hit a giant mute button before dialling everything into slow motion. Bella didn't understand at first, but she soon caught on as Edward Masen strolled through the door. Fighting a groan, she noticed Jessica thrust out her chest and Angela crouch a little lower in her seat. Bella had been fortunate enough to have already glimpsed this particular piece of eye-candy, but she was not immune, only... fortified; she gaped slightly less. Of course, that did little good when the object of attention took the empty seat behind her. Her mouth fell right open. He would be looking at her hair, her tangled, frizzed, bushy mop of muddy brown hair. She wanted to cry. Both girls had interrupted their recounting of the summer to compliment her new coif. Monica's conditioner actually was doing some good. Maybe he'd be able to see around it at least. Also, he'd have a very nice striped blazer to look at as well. Alice had excellent taste, even if Bella would never choose such on her own.

Angela followed Bella's example and faced forward while Jessica attempted to introduce herself. Closing her eyes, Bella wished her luck, again. She thought Jessica tried a little too hard to get into the popular crowd, and, as she had with Mike, was definitely aiming too high to go after the new boy, but hey, everyone got lucky once in a while, right?

Today was not Jessica's lucky day, and the teacher came to start class before she'd gotten much further than her name. Bella's smile was slight and apologetic as she caught Jess's eye. Jessica was a little red from anger, if Bella knew her at all, and Jess glared at the man behind the front desk. Opening her book, Bella began her first year as the only Cullen of Fork's High. A lot would had to go wrong to diminish this day.

"Hello?" Bella was in the process of dropping her books in her bag and didn't put a face to the voice right away. When she looked up, her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth.

"Uh, hi," Bella answered.

"I was wondering if you were headed to Building Two?" Edward asked, running a hand through his brown hair. No, her hair was brown, his was more than that. His was bronze, metallic and glittering. Clearing her head, she digested the question.

"Um, yeah. Biology, right? I have that, too." She didn't look at Jessica in the doorway but could feel that sharp nose digging into her back. Angela, behind Edward, gave her the thumbs up before running to catch up to Jessica. Neither were in her next class. She could have used the support. "I can show you the way." Rising more smoothly than she expected, she'd been such a klutz for so long, she turned on Alice's heeled boots and watched Edward fall in beside her.

Swallowing, Bella fought to keep the blush off her face. One of the reasons she hadn't sat with her family was the intense desire not to be looked at. She didn't like being compared to them, and not standing next to them helped. Everyone looked at the Cullens. Now, everyone was looking at Edward, which meant they were looking at her, comparing her. She stood straighter than normal, still falling a couple inches short of Edward, though the heels brought her close. She impressed herself again by not stumbling on the walk to Building Two. She was unimpressed by her inability to speak to the beautiful young man who had accompanied her. Worse, he had had to introduce himself to her table at lunch after Biology. She really hadn't anticipated him joining her, and she hadn't said anything since the few words at the end of English. To her defense, Edward wasn't exactly chatty. He didn't ask her questions or talk about himself either, and after introductions, he sat quietly at her side through the lunch hour.

They didn't share afternoon classes, which was a small relief. Bella didn't know if she could have handled anymore. He was so beautiful, and she was so...not. She wouldn't ask him not to sit at her table, but she might conveniently find she had homework that made her unavailable at lunch hour.

Rosalie still hadn't made her grand entrance, but she asked about Edward over dinner.

"He is a junior, right? Do you have any classes with him?"

Bella cringed slightly and then recounted her day.

"Oh, sweetie, do you think he might like you?" Esme asked, eyes nearly glowing.

"I doubt it, Mom. I'm guessing I just looked...approachable." She slouched again, eating more quickly.

"Straighten up, Bella. Sit tall."

Bella ground her teeth but straightened only to slump a few minutes later when her mother was less likely to notice. She wouldn't bother with Alice's clothes tomorrow. Too much like trying to be something she wasn't. She wasn't doing the outfits justice, not the way Alice had.

Still, morning came, and she found herself donning a skirt and blouse from Alice's collection. They were so pretty, even if she wasn't. It was something nice, right?

Friday came sooner than Bella had expected. Time really was passing more quickly without her siblings in the school. She still fought the urge to blush or cringe when she stood next to Edward, but he had continued to accompany her to Biology after English and shared a bench with her for the lab. They'd shared a few more words, but none were personal. Everything they said revolved around novels assigned for class or identifications pertaining to the experiment of the day. Friday she had skipped lunch, leaving Edward when they passed the library.

"I'm going to read Macbeth over lunch," she said as she pulled open the door.

He caught it and held it open for her, his arm and chest filling her view. She fought to breathe. "Let me join you. Read aloud? It's usually better that way."

Bella closed her eyes for a moment before answering. "All right." It sounded strangled.

The best part about reading Macbeth with Edward? His effected Scottish accent. She thought she would combust. And that was only slightly better than having no one looking at them. The library was completely empty. Bella thought she might have found heaven.

Of course, she still found herself at a loss when speaking to him outside of lines and assignments, so after the hour, they parted ways again, wishing each other a good weekend.

Which is why she was surprised to see him after school. He was usually fast out of the lot with other drivers. Bella had always been driven by her siblings and had yet to get her licence. Esme would be there soon to pick her up. Except, Esme wasn't in the Mercedes in the lot, and Bella crossed her arms, watching Rosalie approach Edward Masen who was leaning over the open hood of his Volvo.

"These are usually very reliable," she called ahead of herself. "What sort of trouble did you find?"

Bella headed for the Mercedes and leaned on it. The only thing wrong with that Volvo would be whatever Rosalie had done to it. She was surprisingly good with mechanics, considering how she hated to get dirty.

"I have no idea," Edward complained, dark green sweater sleeves pushed up to his elbows. Bella couldn't help but remember him reading, "Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day, and with thy bloody and invisible hand cancel and tear to pieces that great bond which keeps me pale." He had pushed back his sleeves in the library, too, showing the pale skin of his inner arm and lifting a hand to her cheek. It had been very hard to deliver her own line shortly after. She still wasn't sure how 'chuck' made an endearment, as Macbeth said to his lady a few lines before, but Edward could make her like it.

She was glad to have her mind back on the play, his reading, and not on the fiddling and giggling going on behind the hood of the Volvo. Maybe she could walk home.

Before she'd made a decision, the engine purred and Edward stepped back out of the car, smiling at Rosalie.

"Thank you," he said. "How can I repay?"

"Dinner?" she suggested, smiling sweetly. "My mother wouldn't mind if you joined us."

That was enough, Bella started hiking. It was blocks home, and the rain would ruin her finally tamed hair, but she just couldn't care anymore.

"Bella?" She stopped at her name and turned; she was nearly out of the lot. It wasn't Rose who had called.

"Edward?" she asked, confused.

"Do you need a ride?" he asked.

"Actually, she's with me," Rosalie said with another smile for him. "Sorry, Bella. I didn't mean to make you wait, just giving Edward, here, a hand. He's coming over for dinner tonight."

Fighting the urge to scowl, Bella realized she'd just look more childish stomping off. "It's okay. It was nice of you to help him. I just thought I might meet up with Dad at the hospital, in case you two, you know, wanted to be alone." That wasn't childish right? True — certainly, snide — yep, childish — only slightly.

"Well, we don't," Rosalie snapped. She smoothed her features quickly. The two had never been close, but all of the siblings made allowances for Bella's inferiority complex. "Please, Bella, I'll need your help to finish dinner for Edward."

"I thought I was supposed to be thanking you?" he asked with a quirked brow. "Maybe Bella should help me finish dinner. Ride with me?" he asked, looking at Bella again.

"Um...I...sure, thanks." She walked around his car and got into the passenger seat, pulling back the hood of her jacket. She could feel her hair frizzing, her eyes watering, at least she still hadn't fallen on her face in front of him. It was a nice change.

"She's your sister?" he asked as he pulled his door shut.

"I know, no resemblance, right? She looks like Dad." Bella moped. Not that I look much like Mom, she thought.

"I see. I look like my mom. Got Dad's chin and nose, though." He smiled at her. "Guess I never asked about your family."

"No. I didn't either." Bella fidgeted, twisting her fingers in the strap of her bag, Alice's bag. Who was she trying to be? "You know, I think Rosalie likes you."

He snorted. Bella's head whipped in his direction, surprised at the sound.

"Oh, I'm sorry, she's your sister. I shouldn't say anything. I don't even know her. But you know that girl, Jessica?" Bella nodded. "She reminds me of her — puffed up on herself; sure she can win you over."

Bella's brow creased. "Jessica knows she can't win you over; she just can't help but try. She's so desperate to be popular." She clapped a hand over her mouth. She'd never said that to anyone but Angela.

Edward chuckled. "Yes, she is. Rosalie isn't desperate, just popular, right? Used to getting what she wants." Bella nodded again. "Yeah, that's what I thought. I can read people pretty well."

Bella didn't have an answer to that. She had a question, but one she didn't dare ask aloud. And how do you read me? What do you see?

"I don't know how to get to your house," he said with a crooked smile she'd only gotten the pleasure of once or twice. His left cheek pulled up twice as far as the right, giving him a mischievous look, the same way Emmett's dimples made him seem.

"Right. I mean," she shook her head, "a left when you get to main street."

He followed her directions and pulled into the ample drive. "Whoa. I thought my parents had money."

Bella laughed. "Yeah, why are you living in the old Swan place?" She closed her eyes and felt her stomach sink into her toes.

"You know where I live?" he asked. Then, rubbing his cheek, he added, "Swan. I think that was his name. Cop, mustache?"

Bella smiled. "Yeah, that was him. Charlie Swan, our old Police Chief. Great guy. I like that place." She looked at their eight bedroom, three floor estate house. "This is too much."

"I don't know. It could suit you."

She stared at him in disbelief. Was he flattering her? No way. "Come on inside before Rosalie accuses me of trying to lose you." She rolled her eyes and strode for the door.

He trotted to get there ahead of her and open it. "You can get lost with me." His green eyes bore into her until she knew her heart was in her throat and didn't want to know what her stomach was trying to do.

Okay, now she knew she was dreaming. Well, might as well enjoy it until she woke up. She stepped through the door and unzipped her boots. "Mom, I'm home. I've brought company. Okay, Rose invited company." She showed Edward the coat stand.

Esme popped around a corner in an apron. "She told me. She beat you by seconds. You must be Edward Masen. Welcome to Forks." She stretched out a hand.

"A pleasure, Mrs. Cullen."

"Esme, please." Bella let her mother's smile warm her as it would be warming Edward. "Your hair didn't mind the rain. Monica knows her business." Bella blushed as her mother tapped the tip of her nose.

"And you resemble your mother," Edward said from just behind her.

Bella rolled her eyes. That was too much. "Hardly," she muttered. She barely caught his shake of the head as she made her way to the kitchen. Opening a cupboard, she pulled down the flatware while Edward washed his hands at the kitchen sink.

"Oh, Edward, the washroom is just over—" Esme didn't get to finish as he pulled the plates out of Bella's hands.

"Didn't Rose tell you? I'm repaying her for help with my car. Let me know what else I can do," he carried the stack through to the dining room while Bella faced her mother's glare. Bella shrugged. What could she say? It hadn't been her idea. She snatched up silverware and followed Edward.

"I think you've made my mother very uncomfortable," she said as she placed forks and knives carefully.

Edward chuckled again. She could come to like that sound. "Well, perhaps you can come to my house and make my mother uncomfortable in return."

She dropped the silverware in clatter. "What are you doing?" she asked waspishly. "Comparing me to mother, passing over my sister, asking me...I don't understand, Edward. Is this some practical joke?"

"Bella!" Esme said from the archway to the kitchen. "Come here, now." Her voice was hard. Bella's mouth tightened into a straight line, and she turned on her heel. She'd heard that voice, but it was never directed at her.

"Yes?" she asked quietly once she was under her mother's now cold gaze.

"That boy isn't playing a game with you." She dropped her voice to a whisper. "Your father used to look at me like that."

Bella's mouth hung open. That wasn't possible. "A dream," she muttered closing it. "I'll wake up and..."

"What?" Esme asked snappily again. "What was that?"

"I'll apologize," she said more loudly. "Excuse me."

Rosalie stopped her. "Let me. I think I know how to explain." Bella nodded, and let her sister through, moving vegetables from a pot to serving bowl instead.

"You're going to let her step in?" Esme asked, looking side-long at her daughter.

"Mom, I don't know what you think he sees, but I'm not Rose. I'm not you. He...Rose'll explain. She knows how I am."

Her mother's arm was around her shoulder and her lips on Bella's temple. "Sweetie, I know exactly what he sees. What we all see it. If only you could."

Bella had heard that before, too — beautiful on the inside. Well, she'd see how that stood up next to Rosalie's beautiful outside.

To Bella's relief, once Dr. Cullen came home, the meal proceeded normally. Edward shared small tidbits about himself, no one asked anything of Bella, Rosalie preened — perfectly normal.

Saturday, Bella woke feeling normal again. She didn't put on any of Alice's clothes, instead wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. She flopped on the couch and turned on music, Macbeth in her lap. She was surprised when Rosalie came and sat across from her.

"I asked Edward to go to a movie with me."

Bella turned the page. "Yeah?"

"He asked if you were coming."

Bella rolled her eyes before lifting them to meet her sister's blue gaze. "And?"

"Are you?"

Bella's brow furrowed. "What?"

"Will you come to the movie with Edward and me? This isn't going nearly as well as I'd hoped," she complained. "I'm going to try this movie, maybe a dark room, whispering...I don't know. If it flops, well, Dad's ready to pull strings to get me in at Berkley for the winter term. I'm thinking drama." She flipped her hair quite dramatically.

Bella snorted. "Why not mechanics? Imagine all the guys you'd meet there."

Rosalie wrinkled her nose. "Wrong kind of guys. I want the ones that bring their cars to the mechanic."

Bella chuckled. "That would still work if you were the mechanic."

Rosalie laughed, too. "True! Ha! Well, maybe I'll moonlight in a shop." Her smile beamed. "Do you like Edward?" Rosalie asked, smile fading in seriousness.

Bella shrugged. "He seems nice. Why?"

Rose's smile seemed to hold some sort of secret. "No reason."

Bella rolled her eyes once more and returned to her reading.

The movie sealed the deal as far as Rosalie was concerned. "He's all yours, Bella. I'm going to talk to Dad about Berkley. Nothing here for me anymore," she declared when they got home. It made no sense to Bella, nothing exceptional had happened. She wouldn't mind being the only kid at home. She wasn't spending a lot more time with her parents, but they were enjoying their time alone. She wouldn't be surprised if they encouraged her to fly off for college so they could revel in their empty nest.

Edward wasn't much more conversational after dinner or movie than before, although he did invite her over to work on a Biology project. He was right about her returning the favor. Elizabeth Masen seemed to be in a flutter the entire time Bella was over, complimenting her on her wardrobe — a few of the accessories actually were her own, though the blouse was Alice's — her hair, even her posture. At that point, Edward had nearly dragged her to his room upstairs.

"Seriously, Mom, her posture? Why not compliment her promptness in arriving, too?" He closed the door a little more vigorously than necessary, and Bella couldn't help but chuckle.

"I like her. You do look like her." Elizabeth had the same shade of brown hair with shimmering highlights, and the same bright green eyes. She had only glimpsed Mr. Masen around his wife, but she had recognized Edward's profile.

He was even cuter when he blushed to the tips of his ears. "Yeah, thanks. Um...you can take the chair." He pushed a pile of clothes off into the basket. He perched on the edge of the bed, and it occurred to Bella for the first time that she was in a boy's bedroom — a boy that wasn't one of her brothers. She bit her lip before sinking gratefully into the chair. They got down to business and both relaxed over their books.

Bella stopped hiding in the library as fewer people seemed to stare at her and Edward. She didn't believe he actually liked her as more than a lab partner and study buddy. After all, they didn't get together except to do schoolwork. Well, they hadn't, until he asked her to the prom.

Unable to bear such a cruel joke, she didn't answer, turning and running from him, leaving him standing next to the car he had offered to drive her home in. She ran all the way home, nearly collapsing in the doorway in tears.

She didn't realize Jasper was home between gigs until he came and handed her a tissue. "Hey, what's wrong?" In true, big brother fashion, he scooped her up and carried her to the couch, holding her until she got control of herself again.

"There's...this...boy," she said between sobs.

Jasper had the gall to laugh at her. "Of course there is, sweet pea."

She pushed back. "What do you mean, of course there is?"

Jasper shook his head, knowing her very well. She thought no boy could be interested in her. "You've never seen yourself clearly and never listened to any of us tell you otherwise. Yeah, you had it rougher through adolescence than the rest of us, but you made it, like we all told you you would." He chucked a finger under her chin, and she pulled away again, angrily.

"You don't understand," she muttered.

Jasper sighed. "Then why don't you explain it? I think I have a pretty good idea how you're feeling, though. Hurt?" She nodded. "Disappointed?" She nodded again, blowing her nose. "Wishing you could scream?"

"Yes," she said, staring. How did Jasper do that?

"It's all over your face, sweet pea. What I don't know is why you feel this way. You look like how I felt when Maria told me to take a hike." Bella had never known Maria. She was years older than Bella, two years older than Jasper, but he'd crushed on her hard. That was where half his pitiful love songs came from. "Now, who is he so I can break his face?" His grin would have done Emmett proud — the perfect blend of malice with a hint of glee. Bella giggled. Emmett would have been the first on the 'let's-break-the-boy' bandwagon, and he would probably appreciate Jasper filling in for him.

"Don't break his face. It's a very pretty face," Bella said with a smile she didn't know she could muster.

"Okay. What did he tell you?"

"He asked me to the prom," she said with scorn.

Jasper stared at her a moment. "He said he wouldn't take you?" he asked in confusion.

Bella laughed harder. "No! Ha! That would be better. I would have expected that. I didn't ask him to the prom," she scoffed. "He asked me."

Jasper shook his head. "And you like him?"

"Yeah, I really like him. We've been lab partners and studied together and..."

"Then what's the problem, Bella?" Jasper's brow was wrinkled deeply.

Esme stepped into the room. "The problem is that she is still blind as well as dense." Bella had never heard that tone from her mother, not even toward Emmett, who rose her ire more than any of them had. "Bella, I told you how he looked at you. He isn't teasing you; he isn't playing with you. He likes you." Esme shook her head and pulled her daughter up by the hand dragging her up the stairs. She grabbed a picture off the wall as she passed. "Look." She pointed at the mirror on the landing. Bella still tried hard not to look in mirrors. She never wore any makeup for just that reason. Her face screwed up in a scowl.

Esme sighed and held the picture up over the lower half of Bella's face. It was her school picture from ninth grade. Her braces showing in her smile, her hair barely held back by the barrette in it. She could look at that, somehow, but it was abruptly pulled away. Her hair hung in gentle waves now, not unlike her mother's. The braces were gone. She was prettier, still not as beautiful as the rest of her family, but pretty. She smiled a bit tentatively.

Then she turned and hugged her mother. "Thank you."

Jasper closed the hug from the other side. "You believe us now? You really are a Cullen?" He chuckled. He had been on her side with the adoption thing when she played his guitar without his permission, but he had to apologize for it after.

She laughed. "Yeah. I guess I do. I'm still not nearly as beautiful as the rest of you, though," she pointed out. Mother and son met gazes and shook their heads. They were interrupted by a knock at the door.

"I'll get it," Jasper said, descending the staircase.

Bella looked around the edge of the stairs as Jasper opened the door to a very angry Edward Masen. "Is Bella home?" he nearly growled.

"She might be, but I don't think I'll be letting her see you."

"It's alright, Jasper," she said, stepping to the floor and grabbing her brother's tensed arm. He looked over his shoulder at her and raised an eyebrow. Then he nodded and joined Esme further in the house. "I'm sorry, Edward."

"Sorry?" he asked, incredulous. "Why did you run? You didn't even say no. You just..." He heaved a sigh, lowering his head and raking fingers through his hair several times. Bella had to snatch her hand back. "Bella, I know I'm not...that I haven't... It's so much easier when we talk about class," he muttered. She had to agree. Still, she wasn't sure what he was trying to say. "I know you might have already been asked..."

She couldn't help it, she laughed in his face.

"You have?" he asked, disappointment darkening his eyes.

"What? NO! Of course, I haven't, Edward. Who would ask me to the prom?" She snorted inelegantly.

"Well, any of them. I mean, I don't know why you let me monopolize your time. You must have guys asking you out..."

She shook her head again. "No, Edward, I don't. Okay? I know people are looking at you all the time, and I've watched the girls try to grab your attention-"

He got angry again. "And I haven't? You haven't seen Yorkie trying to catch your eye from across the cafeteria? Or the way Dustin keeps dropping his books in front of you?"

Bella's eyes went wide. Was that true? Well, the last was. Dustin was a spazz.

"Edward, none of them are interested in me. They like my family. I mean, you met Rosalie. Now you've seen Jasper, and my parents... Emmett and Alice are just as gorgeous. I'm...the black sheep, the ugly duck."

He was silent, staring at her in return as she had moments before. "I've never compared you to your family, Bella, except to point out that you look like your mom, which you do. Hi, Mrs. Cullen," he said shyly, noticing her in the background.

"Don't mind us." She grabbed Jasper and yanked him into the kitchen with her.

"You certainly aren't less than any of them. You're more." He lifted a hand to stroke her cheek with a finger. Bella felt a line of fire follow it, and her breath came in a gasp. "Rosalie was hollow next to you. She was so obvious. You..." He looked over her face before taking her cheeks in his hands. "I could read you forever, if I could read you at all." He groaned quietly. "I'll go now."

"Wait!" She grabbed at his sleeve to stop him. "I'd love to go to prom with you, Edward."

He smiled and she felt her stomach do all sorts of flips. "Thank you, Bella."

And so, even though Bella would never admit it to herself, the ugly duckling actually had become a Swan.

A/N: Was she swapped with Baby Girl Swan at birth? Nah, just teasing you with that one. For reference, Edward's line (and chuck endearment) are found in Act 3 Scene 2 of Macbeth.