There had always been a weapons shop next to the mechanic's garage. Since before Cloud inherited the business, before his old mentor had bought the place from his mentor. Maybe the first guy, the one who'd established the garage, had seen a different business there. But there was no telling. And Cloud really didn't care. He didn't think about why things were, or the possibility of change.
Perhaps this stoic nature was why he'd never moved out of the little one-room apartment he'd found when he started training to be a mechanic. It could be why he'd never accepted offers to get lunch from Zack, the tattoo artist one door over from his garage. Why would he, when he packed a sandwich every day? It would waste food. That was all. Had nothing to do with the way Cloud's heart beat louder every time Zack meandered into his garage, or the possibility that lunch might turn into dinner, a movie, let's meet at your place... and Cloud didn't know how to do all that stuff. He knew all about engines, motorcycles, and absolutely nothing about suave playboys with bright blue eyes and warm smiles.
So that's how it always was. A sandwich for lunch. The mechanic, the weapons dealer, the tattoo parlor on the other side. Unchanging.
Until the day she came.
It didn't start with her, not in the sudden way things happen on TV. First the weapons dealer had a sale. Then another one, with even deeper discounts. Then yet another one, with a giant STORE CLOSING sign in the picture window. Cloud picked up a few blades - sometimes he got leads on rare parts for salvage, and the terrain was tough outside the city. He didn't think much about the place closing down for good. Stores had fake going out of business sales like this all the time, and they stayed open. That would happen here, too.
But it didn't. When the last little pocket knife was gone, the weapons dealer took down his sign, locked the front door, and didn't come back.
"Pretty quiet without the old guy bangin' away at his sandbag, huh?" Zack asked as he leaned against Cloud's motorcycle. He always visited Cloud on his lunch break. Maybe he thought he would wear Cloud down someday and get that coveted date. "Think he became a boxer after all? Nahhh, he's too old. Maybe started up a gym though, you think?"
Cloud took another bite of his sandwich so he wouldn't have to answer. He wasn't thinking about the weapons dealer. His mind was on Zack's lean arms, and the way the noon sun reflected gold off them. Despite his profession, Zack only had one tattoo that Cloud knew of. A wolf's head with a sword and some kind of ring on his bicep. It probably meant something. Cloud never asked what. It might lead Zack to explain, and then offer to show off other tattoos, ones in places covered by clothes, the kind that just had to be seen to be appreciated-
"You're turnin' red again," Zack cautioned with one of those knowing smiles of his. "Put too much pepper in your sandwich? I know a great salad bar. Wanna check it out with me?"
"I'm halfway done with this," Cloud protested weakly. Zack saw right through him.
"Look, Cloudy, we've been friends since-"
Zack's sudden frankness could have been the approach it took to melt Cloud's barrier for good, but they wouldn't get the chance to find out. A large truck rolled up and blocked out the sun. HEALING RAIN FLORALS was painted across it. It had no business in an industrial zone like this. Grass didn't grow in the vacant lot down the street, let alone flowers. The sheer audacity of the thing's presence silenced Zack. Cloud gratefully finished his lunch in silence as the two watched the truck unload in front of the empty space between their respective storefronts.
Over the next few days the weapon store took on a new appearance. Dark grey cement was painted white and green. Flower arrangements filled shelves that had been home to engine blades and spears. Great big pots with neatly trimmed bushes stood outside where tough-looking mercenaries had once gathered to brag about their bloody adventures. But the change that stood out most to Cloud was Zack - or rather, the sudden lack of him. He came over to say hi sometimes, sure, but he didn't linger like he used to, didn't hound Cloud with invitations.
Cloud thought the peace and quiet would clear his mind of the good-looking tattoo artist, but instead his brain tried to fill that emptiness with Zack. What's worse, Cloud's traitorous mind had its own opinions about what Zack should invite Cloud to do, and what he should be wearing when he-
Cloud shook his head furiously against today's fantasy (Zack as a handsome soldier in a magical world, and Cloud his favorite cadet). Clearing his mind wasn't helping. Maybe he needed to fill it with something else. The flower shop. He hadn't been inside the place since - well, not at all. Cloud hadn't put much thought into who owned this valiant attempt to bring beauty to a rough part of town. Maybe it was time to find out. Determined to not think about Zack for the rest of the day, Cloud dusted his hands off on his coveralls and left the garage.
It wasn't a long walk to reach Healing Rain Florals - literally four steps to the front door. The three shops shared walls, with no alleys between them. Supposedly the building was a mega shopping center in its heyday, before the company closed down and sold off the property to various small vendors.
Cloud's garage had been the company's automotive repair department, of course. There was no telling what Zack's had been. A lot of his clientele were building contractors, and he'd given them free range to mod his place however they wanted in exchange for ink work. Inside and out was a giant work of urban art; tough but full of spirit, just like Zack. The shop between them... Cloud had only ever known it to hold weapons, but seeing it with a fresh coat of paint and bright flowers made him wonder what it was in its first life. Refreshing and light. Like it had always been meant to be a flower shop.
Cloud's eyes softened as he looked at the arrangements in the window. He'd seen a lot of these before, on his trips outside of town. They weren't rare or imported, just the sort of stuff that grew around here. Whoever ran this place had a loving touch. Even these local plants looked special woven into the florist's wreaths and bouquets.
Cloud put his hand on the door and had to pause again as he caught sight of her. Green eyes, long hair in a braid, and a smile that reminded Cloud of a happiness he was sure he'd never truly experienced. Not in this life, anyway. She was beautiful. Angelic. Could this be the owner of the flower shop?
Before abandoning him completely, Cloud's sensibilities urged him to enter the store. He would say hi to her. Get her name. Ask about the flowers maybe. And nothing else. The woman was dangerous in the same was Zack was. Getting any closer might disrupt Cloud's simple, straightforward life. The one in which he knew what to expect each day, and how to deal with it.
"Welcome to Healing Rain Florals," the young woman greeted him. "I'm Aerith. You must be my neighbor."
Her smile was radiant. Softer than Zack's, but with that same inner light. Uh oh. This was trouble. Cloud shouldn't have come here. He tried to plan his escape, but found himself awkwardly responding to Aerith's inquiries about himself. She volunteered what he didn't ask, and within minutes he knew more about her than he knew about himself. No, he'd known himself all his life. None of it could rise to the front of his mind with her occupying it, that was all. Just like with him.
"I-," Cloud stammered, "been outta the garage too long, there might be a customer."
Aerith raised her eyebrows. Was she surprised, or just teasing him? She accepted his weak excuse, and as he left the flower shop, Cloud vowed not to return again!
...so he told himself every time, he silently grumbled. It had become a pattern. Every day at eleven, Cloud went to the flower shop to chat with Aerith. He was no conversationalist, but she filled in the gaps for him. She restored optimism to the hour he spent anticipating a visit from Zack that wouldn't come anymore. Where did Zack go these days? Whose shop counter did he lean on, and did they accept his invitations?
The door opened, and Cloud looked up to see what customer would interrupt his morning visit.
"Hey, Aerith, it's almost noon!" Zack called. "You wanna get spaghetti? I know a- oh hey, Cloud!"
"Zack?" Cloud gasped.
This was where he'd started spending his lunch hour? Talking to... to someone else? Cloud's eyes drifted back to Aerith. Of course Zack would prefer her company to his. She probably didn't grumble and turn away every time he spoke to her. Maybe she even accepted his frequent invites to lunch. Cloud hadn't honestly thought Zack would only chase after him forever, had he?
Thinking only about preserving the order in his life, Cloud had let Zack's constant attention become part of that order. He'd never considered that Zack might give up, get tired, find somebody new to chase after. Was it selfish? Or just naive?
Unaware of his crisis, Zack and Aerith chatted happily over Cloud's gloom. Aerith's arms were folded, and she shook her head firmly. Zack pointed eagerly at Cloud and Aerith looked at him quizzically. Oh shit, they were pulling him into the conversation! What were they talking about? Whose side should he take?
"Uh- well I mean-" Cloud pretended to cough.
"See?" Zack enthused. "He's blushing just thinkin' about their cheese sticks! So you'll go with us, right?"
"You two really have lunch at this place every Thursday?" Aerith asked dubiously.
"Sure we do!" Zack threw an arm around Cloud's shoulder and drew him close. Still reeling from his personal epiphany, Cloud was defenseless against the sudden display of affection and could only blush deeper. "It's kinda me and Cloud's special place, but there's plenty of room at the table for three."
For three?! Cloud couldn't handle the thought of building a romance between two people, let alone three! Was Zack crazy? Aerith would never-
"Well, okay, I'll believe you," Aerith smiled. "Let me get my purse."
In her absence, Zack gave Cloud a tight squeeze. It might have been Cloud's imagination, but he thought he felt Zack plant a kiss into his hair. Wishful thinking?
"Thanks, Cloud," he half whispered. "You won't regret it, I promise."
"Wait, is this...?"
What had Cloud just agreed to do? Was it romance or lunch? Had he even agreed at all? He hadn't! Zack was a con artist, not a tattoo artist!
But it was only lunch, right? Just once. Just Zack, and Cloud, and Aerith. Three friends sharing a meal together. Zack wasn't flirting with him, and neither was Aerith. It had all been in Cloud's head. His world wasn't being thrown out of order.
"Ready for our date!" Aerith called as she reappeared from behind the counter.
Cloud's stomach flipped. He was speechless as Aerith took his hand, the one that Zack wasn't clinging to.
"If you two have good taste, I might have to join you for dinner this weekend," Aerith cooed.
"Forget that, how about a movie tonight?" Zack grinned.
Cloud hung his head in defeat. Or perhaps he was just trying to hide a shy smile. His orderly life was predictable, but was was so good about that after all? With Zack and Aerith at his side, Cloud was ready to give something new a try. Maybe dating? A full romance...?
At least lunch.