The view from the peak went down for miles and miles, dropping blithely into little more than a fuzz of green far below. With a soft, barely-aspirated sigh, Mel settled herself on a mossy rock and stared out at the vista, tapping her sunglasses in one hand against the other, seeing none of it.
 
She sighed again, slipping the glasses into a pocket and pulling out a cigarette. A brief burst of flame from her lighter; a fragile curl of smoke. Behind her, the wind trickled dustings of snow into her footprints – by the time she turned to leave, it would be as if she’d always been there, with no mark on the landscape to record her coming. The memory of her passing would be as brief. But mountains are like that – small human lives make very little impact on them.
 
She bounced the Zippo on her palm for a long moment, staring at the unadorned steel case. It was scratched and worn by time and careless handling – she could sympathise.
 
Mel didn’t need to look at the initials and date etched on its base. JMC 1983. She knew exactly how it had come into his hands that long ago day, the feelings of camaraderie that had accompanied it. The small joy he’d taken in filling it for the first time at a small table in a dark hotel bar in Oman, in lighting that first cigar. The other uses it had been put to later.
 
It had belonged to a man she loved.
 
A man she killed.
 
A man she had never known.
 
Abruptly, she surged to her feet and, jaw set, whipped the Zippo out into the void with every ounce of strength she had, then stood, quivering, at the brink, watching for the flash of light as the steel dropped into the void. Even though she could still feel it clenched in her cold fingers. She was close to crying, but it felt as if every tear she might have shed was born frozen, bright and hard as diamond, chilled by more than climate; by the hollow in her soul.
 
She looked out over the precipice and wondered what that brief flight might be like. The cigarette slipped, forgotten, from her fingers. She turned away, knowing that courage wasn’t in her.
 
Nepal had given her nothing. She’d travelled a thousand miles seeking peace, but all she’d found was distance. Though London and the horrors of the City were far behind her now, the thing she’d always been trying to run from was right there with her, setting its feet in her footprints through the pristine snow.
 
Sometimes when she looked in the mirror she’d see his face. Every night, in her dreams, she felt his touch. Or lived again that sickening moment when she’d felt the last flutter of his heart within her hand.
 
And sometimes dreamed the web of dreams and memories his shattered skull would no longer hold. Haunted. Possessed, in a way sex could never have given him. And she wondered how the Shan would have laughed to know it, the pain it gave her in his death.
 
She slammed the sunglasses back across her eyes and picked her way step by step down the narrow, frozen trail. Somewhere down there was a bar, and after a couple of drinks, bars the world over are all the same.
 
Existence is suffering.
 
Melanie Swann continued to exist.

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