BY : Worlds_First_Ghost
Category: +G through L > The Loud House
Dragon prints: 603
Disclaimer: I do not own The Loud House, nor the characters from it. I do not make any money from the writing of this story.

“Alright class, as you all know, your final projects are due in five weeks.”

The students voiced their displeasure all at once. Their collective groans and other disagreeable noises resounded off the classroom’s thin walls, which only served to amplify their sounds of dismay. The teacher fought the urge to groan himself as he straightened out the stacks of paper containing the prompts for the project.

“The projects will be done in groups of three,” he resumed. This was met with another choir of frustration. “So I want you all to spend today organizing your groups.”

The teacher stood up and began passing out the prompts to his grumbling students. Leni was one of the first to receive one since she was seated in the front row. The seat wasn’t her choice since she felt that the front was only for teacher’s pets and nerdy kids; she’d much rather sit in the back where the more popular kids tended to congregate. The teacher insisted, however, that she sit up there in order to “maximize her academic potential.” Even though Leni wasn’t sure what those words meant, she was almost certain that the teacher just wanted to keep her in a particular spot in the class because he saw something good in her. Keeping that in mind made her feel special, so her seat placement didn’t bother her all too much.

Leni began skimming over the directions of the prompt with a confident smile. Unlike the rest of the class, she actually preferred group assignments. Not only did she tend to get better grades on them, but they also gave her the opportunity to talk to other people, which was infinitely more fun for her than schoolwork. Once all the prompts were passed out, Leni stood up and scoured up and down the rows of seats for who would be her group mates and potentially her new friends. She expected it to be an easy search, but every desk she visited came with a rejection. It seemed everyone else was much faster than her when it came to organizing their groups; even the kids who looked to be sitting all alone vehemently insisted that they already had partners. Leni’s optimistic smile faltered slightly by the time she reached the end of the last row without a single person recruited to her group. She had no choice but to go to the teacher to see if he could help her. She shuffled to the front of the class with heavy feet, her thoughts muddled with uncertainty. She was always asking for the teacher’s help in explaining a concept or clarifying instructions for an assignment, and he always had such a tired expression on his face; she thought that maybe she shouldn’t bother him about this. Once she reached his desk, however, she felt that since her problem wasn’t about understanding the class material, he wouldn’t mind this time.

“Umm, Mr. Teacher,” she said. Ever since she started high school, she had trouble remembering all her teacher’s names due to how many there were. “Like, I don’t think there’s anyone left to be in my group.”

The teacher sighed and looked up from his papers with an exasperated look that made Leni wince slightly. “There should be enough students so that everyone has a full group, Miss Loud,” he said flatly. “But I’ll see if I can find a place for you.” He got up from his chair and briefly scanned the class before announcing loudly: “Does anyone have an open spot in their group for Leni here?”

The question was greeted with a sudden silence; a few of the students only shook their heads in response. The teacher rubbed the bridge of his nose as he examined the room once more with his surprisingly vigilant eyes. In the corner of the room, he noticed two students sitting together, their eyes glued to the floor as if trying to seem inconspicuous.

“You two in the back,” the teacher called out, pointing a finger in their direction. “Do you have a third?”

One of the students, a girl with brown hair and freckles, nervously exchanged glances between the teacher and her partner before finally shaking her head in the negative. The teacher looked back at Leni and gestured his hand towards the pair. Leni’s chipper smile returned and she skipped over to her new group and took a seat beside them.

“Hi, I’m Leni,” she introduced herself. “Like, do you guys have any ideas for this project-thingie? I read the paper for it, but like, I don’t know what it’s trying to say, you know?”

The other student in the group, a boy with tanned skin and wavy hair, made a noise that sounded like a cross between a derisive chuckle and an impatient groan before peering over his prompt once more.

“It says we have to make a presentation about an aspect of a civilization we’ve covered in class,” he said. Noticing Leni’s confused expression, he rolled his eyes and clarified. “That means we have to talk about a certain part about one of the ancient peoples we’ve talked about before. Like, Ancient Egyptians, for instance.”

“Ooh, I know what you’re saying,” Leni said. “Like, we can talk about their fashion sense, right? I remember looking at the pictures in the book, and they’ve got like no style at all. I mean, what’s with the funny hats and why does everyone wear the same thing? Talk about boring!”

Leni’s partners only stared at her with unamused faces, causing her excited smile to droop. The boy angrily whispered something about “being stuck with the special kid” to the girl, which caused her to shake her head before facing Leni with a strained patient expression.

“Well, that’s one idea, I guess,” she said slowly to Leni, her lips tugged back to form a small smile. “But what I think might be a better topic is if we discuss how they were able to use agriculture to sustain themselves.”

“Yeah, that sounds good,” the boy said in response. “Like how they were able to grow food even though they lived in a desert.”

The two of them continued to bounce ideas off each other while Leni could only sit quietly. Neither of them seemed interested in trying to include her in the conversation; not once did they turn to look in her direction. Her eyes darted between the two excited students in hurt and disbelief, all traces of her smile since erased. It wasn’t often that people would just ignore her like this and she struggled to figure out if she did something wrong to cause this. She thought that perhaps they just didn’t like fashion, so she thought about trying to talk about whatever it was they seemed interested in instead. Unfortunately, the topic would always shift to something else by the time she had thought up something relevant to say. It didn’t help that much of what they talked about proved to be too abstract for Leni to comprehend, which left her racking her brain for ideas so hard that she felt a headache begin to form under her forehead. The dull pain pulsed rhythmically across her scalp and only intensified when she tried concentrating on something, so fatigue forced her to slink back into her chair. Her tired, blurry eyes glanced from her partners, who continued to converse as if nothing were amiss, and the clock hanging from the adjacent wall. The red second hand dutifully slogged bit by bit around the clock face, each tick creating a low, hollow click that echoed inside Leni’s aching head. Leni hoped that each lagging movement would bring about the end of the class so lunchtime could begin. Eating some food would probably help clear her headache, as well as give her some more time to think about how to earn her group’s good graces.

Eventually, Leni’s wish was granted, and a shrill bell blared throughout the classroom as the clock struck 12. The room was then filled with the collective rumblings of chairs screeching across vinyl floors, rustling backpacks and papers, and mumbling students hurriedly passing off any messages to their partners before they made their mad dashes to the cafeteria. Leni wordlessly watched her two group members exchange their farewells before exiting the door, neither one turning back to acknowledge her. She let loose a sigh as she slung her book bag over her shoulder and plodded out of the classroom. Once she stepped outside, she gazed upon the mass of students frolicking down the hallway toward the cafeteria. Seeing all the eager, hungry faces pass by her forced all semblances of a frown off of her face. Nobody else was sulking at this moment, so why should she be? Class may have been less than perfect, but there was no reason to believe that the rest of the day wouldn’t get better. With a newfound spring in her step and an unassuming grin plastered on her face, she skipped her way to the bustling, steel-walled chamber known as the school cafeteria. The faint odor of stale meat in the air and the masses of children shoveling handfuls of mushy food into their wide, sauce-stained mouths did little to damper Leni’s renewed good mood as she walked to the end of the lunch line and grabbed a tray. The line slogged forwards until Leni finally reached the serving station. She smiled and waved at the lunch lady as she surveyed the selection of lumpy bucketfuls of slop that made up the school’s menu.

“What’s that stuff?” Leni asked the lunch lady while pointing at a vat containing mostly yellow liquid. She didn’t have much experience ordering from the cafeteria since she normally brought a lunch from home. Even though she forgot to bring one today, she still thought that this was a good opportunity for trying something new.

The surly lunch lady snorted as she stuck a ladle into the vat and scooped out a generous spoonful of the yellow goop onto Leni’s tray. “Corn,” she said curtly.

Leni tried to ignore the soggy kernels that floated about in their own juices as she looked for something more appetizing. She tentatively pointed at a plate holding something brown and vaguely looking like meat. “And that?”

“Salisbury steak,” the lunch lady replied, using the same ladle to spoon out a dripping slab onto the tray. Thick, pungent gravy quickly pooled across the tray and more seemed to be bleeding from the meat itself. At this point, the tray was mostly liquid with traces of food swimming around in it. “Anything to drink?”

“Do you have smoothies?” Leni asked hopefully. A wave of snickering came from the students waiting in line behind her. The lunch lady snorted again and slammed a carton of milk beside the tray.

“You one of them special kids or somethin’? This ain’t Jamba Juice!” the lunch lady snarled. “You expecting quality here? Shoulda brought your own lunch then!”

Leni meekly shuffled away from the line without another word, tray and milk clutched tightly to her chest. She could feel the judging eyes of the lunch lady and the other students piercing her back as she approached the rows of tables. All the benches were packed with rowdy teenagers wedged tightly against each other and using their elbows in a futile attempt to make more space for themselves. Leni shuffled her feet and looked side to side hopelessly; she wasn’t sure where she’d be able to eat if she couldn’t find a table. She glanced down at the concrete floor covered in age-old stains, a thin film of dirt and dust, and the scattered bits of discarded food and other litter that collected underneath benches and tables. She reluctantly prepared to sit down where she stood before she heard a voice that seemed to call out to her.

“Hey! You need a seat?”

Leni beamed with excitement and bounded over to the table where the voice came from. It was only after she took her seat that she realized that the table was mostly comprised of 12th graders. She didn’t recognize any of them, as the seniors didn’t tend to associate with those in the lower grades, but the girl sitting directly across from her was giving her a warm, friendly smile.

“Hey, you’re Lori’s sister, right?” the girl asked. She had long blonde hair that was held back by a blue headband. Leni vaguely recalled seeing her with Lori before, but couldn’t remember when.

“That’s right!” Leni replied cheerfully. “My name’s Leni.”

“Charmed, Leni. I’m Carol,” the girl said and briefly casted a sidelong glance to some of the girls beside her. “What’s that on your tray, Leni?”

Leni sadly looked at the congealed pool of gravy and corn juices sitting in front of her. “I think the lunch lady called it berry steak or something. I don’t know, this school food is really weird and sorta grody.”

“Yeah well, looks can be deceiving,” Carol said with a shrug. “You should totally try it, though. It’s some special stuff, for sure.”

Leni glanced down at her meal again. She took a plastic fork and tentatively prodded the steak, which prompted more gravy to ooze from its porous surface. Nothing about it looked appetizing, but Carol seemed like a nice, trustworthy person. Leni stabbed the steak with the fork and slowly lifting it up, a torrent of gravy dribbling off of it and splattering back onto the tray. Cautiously, she bit a chunk out of the meat and immediately screwed her face. She began chewing the mushy, bland meat while the acrid, sludgy gravy coated her tongue. Her eyes started to water as her mouthful forced itself down her throat like a stone. Just as soon as she finished swallowing, she noticed that several of the students at the table had been watching her with wide, eager eyes the whole time. Several of them had hands over their mouth to restrain their laughter, Carol included. As Leni struggled to figure out what was so funny, she pressed a hand to her forehead to wipe away a fresh layer of hot sweat that had gathered up there. Her stomach suddenly lurched and forced her to lean forward all while it gurgled and churned in protest.

“Oh man,” a boy wearing a football jersey said at last. “I didn’t think anyone was dumb enough to ever actually eat that crap.”

Before Leni could respond to that remark, she found herself lying atop a cold metal counter. Shielding her eyes from the glaring fluorescent lighting, she looked around deliriously to try to make sense of her surroundings. Posters depicting drawings of the human body and the food pyramid dotted the walls around her. Sitting in the corner of the room was a man holding a clipboard who looked up at Leni when he noticed her moving around.

“Hello, Leni,” he said with a smile. “Glad to see you’re awake.”

“Where am I?” Leni asked groggily. “I thought I was eating lunch.”

“Well, you were. You’re in the nurse’s office now. We brought you here when you passed out after vomiting up your food. Guess the food here wasn’t agreeing with you today, eh?” He laughed awkwardly in an attempt to lighten the mood, but Leni just stared at him blankly. He then cleared his throat and got up from his chair. “Well, uh, your sister’s here to drive you home. Take it easy there.”

The man shuffled out of the room and passed Lori as she walked inside. She let out a relieved sigh when she saw that Leni didn’t look as sick as she expected her to be. Extending her hand out to Leni, Lori helped her down and the two sisters began their walk towards the school parking lot.

“I heard what happened,” Lori said as they approached Vanzilla. “You should stay away from the Salisbury steak. I don’t know why they still serve that stuff, it literally makes everyone sick.”

“The seniors at the lunch table said it would be good,” Leni said as she opened the passenger-side door and climbed into her seat.

Lori rolled her eyes. “They love taking advantage of underclassmen. You should know better than to trust them.”

Leni winced under Lori’s words and stared down at her lap as Lori started up the van and pulled out of the parking lot. The drive went on in silence for several minutes before Leni finally spoke up. “Lori, do you think I’m dumb?”

Lori was silent as she drummed her fingers atop the steering wheel. A sigh escaped through her teeth before she glanced over at Leni. “No, Leni, I don’t think you’re dumb. You shouldn’t think that either, even if other people try to tell you otherwise. You’re just… special.” Lori smiled as she found the right word. “You’re very special, Leni.”

Leni weakly smiled in return before turning to look outside her window. She closed her eyes and focused on her sister’s words. Special. She supposed that word will have to fit her, for now.

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