Author's Note: Ir-vy-poo! He’s here! He’s here! Whee, I get to play around with the Galbadian cowboy!

High 'n Low Beginnings

Chapter Four - Cowboy’s Lament

By WolfPilot06

"Ho, there, short stuff!" a voice hailed Zell from down the hallway. The blond boy turned around in the middle of talking to Selphie, a broad grin spreading across his tattooed face. A tall, lanky teenager came strolling towards him, tipping his cowboy hat politely at Selphie as he approached.

"Cowboy! How ya doin’?" Zell exclaimed, punching the air in front of him excitedly as he pranced around on his feet. Selphie had noticed that he did that a lot, especially when he was enthused. She smiled at the newcomer brightly. He was good-looking, this ‘cowboy’. He had long, wavy auburn hair that was tied back in a ponytail and sparkling purple eyes. His easy smile made her feel all fluttery inside, but she was prone to laugh at his outfit. It was obvious why Zell had called him "cowboy", because he looked like one. He was wearing a tan leather jacket with fringe and matching pants, and a cowboy hat sat jauntily on his head. All he needed was a piece of straw hanging from his lips and a horse and he could ride off into the sunset. Selphie giggled.

The cowboy bowed to her, raising one appreciative eyebrow as he looked her up and down and let loose a low whistle.

"Short stuff, introduce me to this lovely lady." He took her hand and kissed it. Selphie blushed slightly. Zell rolled his eyes.

"Down, cowboy, down." He said drolly, "Irvine, this is Selphie. She’s new to the school. Selphie, this is Irvine, the school’s biggest flirt and cheeseball."

"Cheeseball?" Irvine protested mildly. He fell in step next to them as they continued walking to the cafeteria. "So, what do y’think of your new school so far, Selph?"

Selphie grinned at the nickname.

"I think it’s absolutely…wonderful!" she said, dancing a little. "The people are nice, the teachers are cool, and the classes are fun! The only problem is-"

"-Is that the school is so big, right?" Irvine grinned, "Yeah, I thought so, too, when I first got here."

"When did you come here? Did you transfer?"

"Well, actually, I’ve been here all my life." Zell started to grin and swiped at Irvine’s hat, managing to grab it before the taller boy could stop him. The blond boy stuck it on his own head and pranced a few steps away while Irvine tried to take his hat back. "Zell!"

"Yeah, it’s just that Irvy-poo has trouble finding his way around when it doesn’t involve girls." Zell grinned, "He has this inborn radar that tells him whenever a cute girl’s within a mile of him, but he couldn’t find his way to the main door if his life depended on it."

Irvine snatched his hat back from Zell and replaced it on his head with an indignant huff, glaring at his unrepentant friend.

"Oh, speak for yourself, short stuff. If I remember correctly, you were the one who got lost when we went to the museum, even though you had a map. Where did they find you again?" Irvine argued, "Oh, yeah, it was in that mummy’s tomb. The one with all the caution tape and the ‘do not enter’ signs. We never could figure out how you got in there."

Zell turned red and mock-punched the cowboy, who pretended to fall back in pain. Selphie was laughing helplessly, amused by the two’s antics.

"Well, what about that time that you got so ‘lost’ that you ended up in the girls’ locker room?" Zell demanded. Irvine put him in a headlock, waggling his eyebrows suggestively.

"Who said that was an accident?" he asked mischievously. Zell yelped as Irvine gave him a noogie, messing up his gelled hair. The blond tried to wriggle out of Irvine’s hold. Selphie joined in by jumping on Irvine’s back and pretending to bite his hat brim.

"Grr, let go of Zellie!" Selphie mock-growled. Irvine grabbed at his precious hat to save it, letting go of Zell in the process. The tall boy suddenly found himself beset by two shorter teenagers, who grabbed onto his neck and leg respectively in a quest for vengeance. It was nearly impossible to pry them off, as Irvine discovered while he was trying to walk. Zell pretended to bite his leg.

"Grrargh," Zell said, his voice muffled by Irvine’s pant leg, "You taste like leather."

"Wonder if Squall tastes like leather, too?" Selphie mused, stealing Irvine’s hat and putting it on her own head.

"Why don’t you bite him and see?"

"No thanks. I like my teeth where they are- in my mouth."

Irvine nearly tripped on Zell as he tried to take another step and threw his arms in the air.

"Alright, I surrender!" he laughed, "I’m outnumbered and overpowered. What else can I do?"

"We’ll only let you surrender if you follow our terms." Zell intoned solemnly from Irvine’s leg, "You must agree to be our slave for the day, and must do everything we tell you to. Do you accept?"

"I accept, I accept." Irvine said, "Now will you get off my leg? I’d like to feel my foot sometime soon."

Zell detached himself from Irvine's leg and the trio entered the cafeteria. The room was filled with chattering students and smelled like grease, stale perfume, and bodies. There were no empty tables, but Zell spotted Squall sitting alone in the corner. They made their way towards him, pushing past people carrying trays, until they broke free of the crowd. The dark-haired boy barely spared them a glance before he went back to eating his unidentifiable meat dish.

Irvine smiled ruefully at Selphie before plopping his hat on Squall’s head. The hat slipped over the smaller boy’s eyes and he pushed up the brim to glare at Irvine.

"Hello to you too, Sunshine." Irvine chuckled, "Glad to know you’re happy to see me."

"…" Squall replied, placing Irvine’s hat back on the table. Zell was bouncing nervously on his toes, glancing over at the diminishing lunch line.

"Hey, guys? I’m going to go get lunch, alright? I mean, what if they run out of hotdogs?"

"Go on, Short Stuff. Just buy me a few, too." Irvine said, grinning. The blond performed an uppercut in some sort of salute and dashed off, his spiked hair quickly disappearing into the crowd. Selphie sat down and opened her lunch.

"So, Squall…" she said uncomfortably, "Um…Are you…ok? Did I upset you?"

Squall shook his head slightly, his eyes locked on the plastic spoon in his hand.

"It’s alright. Ice Man here doesn’t hold grudges- not even for five minutes." Irvine assured Selphie. "Why I remember a time when I poured mud in his favorite pants. After threatening me with all sorts of torture- death, decapitation, castration…- he forgave me. Of course, that was after I bought him two new pairs of pants, but still…"

Risking life and limb, the tall, lanky youth placed an arm around Squall’s shoulders. Squall barely blinked, shrugging off the offending appendage. Irvine sighed mournfully.

"Is this how you treat your best friend?" he looked at Selphie, eyes wide and innocent, "Look at him! Friends since we were wee babes in our cradles, and he ignores me. We’ve been through floods and fire and lightning and puberty and girls together, yet he doesn’t even acknowledge I’m human." He attempted to appeal to Squall, "Don’t you remember that time I saved you from the ravenous squirrels? Or that time that girl wanted to dance with you, but I dashed in heroically and saved you from a fate worse than death?"

Squall rolled his eyes.

"You spend too much time reading cheap romance novels, Irvy." Zell said, announcing his return. He placed a large tray with ten hotdogs on the table. Selphie spotted the assorted condiment packages and whooped with joy, quickly snatching all of the honey-mustard packets.

"Whoot! They're all mine!" she hooted, and promptly started applying the condiment to her sandwich. Irvine watched her in amazement.

"And here I thought Sunshine was the only one who did that." Irvine said, nodding at Squall. The dark haired youth stole some of the honey-mustard and put it on his own lunch, ignoring Irvine. Zell enthusiastically dug into his own plate of hot dogs, drawing an astonished stare from Selphie. She gaped as the blond boy virtually inhaled his lunch, eight hotdogs disappearing in rapid succession. The brunette gagged.

"How does he do that?" she asked Irvine. He shrugged. He was used to the spiked energy ball's eating habits. Zell grinned foolishly, patting his stomach in satisfaction.

"Ahh, wonderful Balamb high school hot dogs." He sighed happily, "Can't live without 'em."

"I can." Selphie wrinkled her nose, "I don't know how you can eat something like that. Hot dogs always gross me out."

"Don't insult the hot dog!"

"But you don't even know what's in them!"

"Worship the hot dog or face the Fists of Wrath!"

"Ok, now who is it who's read far too many martial arts books or seen too many kung-fu movies?"

"Sunshine, what's with the long face?" Irvine interrupted. His purple eyes were on Squall's scowling face, filled with concern although his lips still smiled. Squall didn't say anything, but his scowl deepened. Zell stopped bickering with Selphie and looked at Irvine warningly.

"Um, hey!" Zell said, trying to distract Squall, "What about that renter? Didn't he move in yesterday?"

If anything, Squall's expression grew darker. He stabbed the Mystery Meat viciously with his fork and glared at it. If it were possible, Irvine was convinced that the poor lunch item would have spontaneously combusted under the force of Squall's glare.

"Yes." Squall gritted. Zell blundered on, oblivious to the dropping temperature and the looks Irvine was sending towards him.

"So, what's his name? What's he like?"

Squall's jaw clenched and he poked at his lunch with more force, imagining each little green pea to be Seifer's head and impaling them with homicidal intent. Zell began to realize that he may have chosen the wrong subject to talk about.

"Seifer. Seifer Almasy. And he's an annoying idiot." Squall scowled, putting his fork down. Irvine raised his eyebrows slightly, aware that he was treading on thin ground.

"Hmm, sounds like you like him, Sunshine." The cowboy watched his friend for a reaction. Squall's knuckles turned white as he gripped the sides of his tray and rose to his feet, his expression blank and his eyes stormy.

"Whatever." He spat, and walked away. The three at the table winced and looked at each other helplessly. Irvine sighed and looked at Selphie, who looked a bit stunned.

"It's not your fault, whatever you may think." He assured her. He looked after Squall's retreating back as the leather-clad brunette left through the cafeteria doors and frowned. "He's not usually this bad. Something must really be bugging him."

"Yeah." Zell agreed absently. His brow furrowed and he punched at the air absently, thinking. Squall had arrived at Ceramics late, which must have meant that he had stayed in Quistis's class later than usual. Zell knew that that must have meant that his older sister had wanted to talk to Squall about something, and with the way Squall was acting, the blond knew that it probably had something to do with this new "renter". He resolved to ask his sister about it later. Quistis always was better at getting Squall to talk to her.

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