A Cup of Coffee

"Cliff!" Cornelia gasped, startled. Cliff's eyebrows and hands raised simultaneously and he looked even more surprised than Cornelia felt.

"My God, Cornelia, you scared the living daylights out of me," said Cliff. He eyed Cornelia's gun with understandable nervousness.

Cornelia let the pistol drop slowly to her side. "What are you doing here?" she asked. She wasn't sure whether seeing Cliff standing there made her more or less angry than if he had been a total stranger.

"Just stopping by to check on the old girl," he said, gesturing to the airship around them. "It's been years. I didn't think there was anyone here."

Cornelia stared coldly at him. "How did you get in?"

"I've still got the keys," said Cliff, jangling them from a ring on his belt. "She was my ship once upon a time, after all."

Cornelia felt both irritated and flustered. She couldn't tell if Cliff was even being at all truthful. Part of her wanted to shove him back out the door and slam it in his face. Part of her wanted to raise her gun and shoot him; then he would have a taste of just how much pain he had caused her. But of course she did neither. She just stood there.

Silence was constricting the air in the corridor. Cornelia cast about desperately for something to say.

"Would you fancy a coffee?" was all she could think of.

"Unless you've got something stronger," said Cliff, flashing his familiar roguish grin which Cornelia was horrified to discover she still found attractive.

"Nothing that would suit your refined tastes," Cornelia said scowling. "All the drink I keep aboard the Belle Marie these days is what Hunter — that's the mechanic — buys, and that's not worth poisoning yourself with."

Cliff chuckled. Cornelia flipped a switch on the wall and the electric lights that lined the ceiling sputtered to life. Then she holstered her revolver and led Cliff along the corridor and down a narrow staircase to the crew galley. She waved for him to take a seat as she set about making the coffee.

"So," said Cliff as the burbling of the percolator started up and the warm aroma of coffee beans filled the tiny room, "what have you been doing all these years?"

"Flying," said Cornelia laconically. "Freelance mostly. Finding work here and there wherever I can." She slid into the seat across the table from Cliff, propped her elbows up on the tabletop, and laced her fingers under her chin.

Cliff nodded. He opened his mouth as if to say something, but seemed to decide better of it, for he closed it again and instead distractedly inspected the knuckles of his clenched fists. Cornelia was starting to regret offering him a coffee. Quite apart from the fact that the price of coffee bean was getting ridiculous these days, she certainly had no desire whatsoever to spend any more time with Cliff.

There was yet another prolonged silence. "You know, Cornelia —" Cliff started to say, but at that moment the percolator bell dinged and Cornelia got up to pour the coffee. A minute later, after Cornelia had set down two steaming tin mugs before them she asked:

"I'm sorry, you were saying?"

"What?" said Cliff, who had been doodling on a napkin with a pencil that had been lying on the table. "Oh — er, nothing," he stammered. Cornelia was quite sure it had not been nothing, but she didn't press him. She merely stirred a spoon of sugar into her coffee and sipped at it slowly. She tried to keep up a (very one-sided) conversation, but small talk had never seemed so difficult. The minutes inched by with excruciating sluggishness, and Cornelia was quite relieved when Cliff finished his mug and declared that he must be off. Cornelia stood to show him out, but Cliff waved her off.

"Oh, don't trouble yourself. I daresay I know the way." He paused. "I suppose I'll be seeing you tomorrow morning, then."

"I suppose so," said Cornelia.

They stood there awkwardly for a moment, each suddenly looking very self-conscious as they both tried to decide what sort of parting gesture might be appropriate. Finally, Cliff gave a jerky nod and swept out of the galley, his footsteps clanging noisily off of the metal stairs as he ascended to A-deck. Cornelia sagged into a chair, feeling suddenly exhausted. She tried to tell herself to simply forget about everything. Cliff was no longer part of her life and never would be. But his sudden appearance had stirred up such a whirl of emotions in Cornelia that she was left feeling terribly confused.

She got to her feet with the intent of clearing the table, but as she did so, her eye caught the napkin Cliff had been drawing on. Cliff was a bit of an amateur artist, Cornelia knew, so it hardly surprised her to see an intricate sketch of a heart composed of intertwining vines drawn on the napkin. But it did surprise her to see the words written in its center. Just two words in Cliff's familiar, cramped handwriting:

I'm sorry.

The End

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