Winters were colder up north than Enjolras was used to, but the company was so much better. He would have to visit Louis up here again—especially if they could have more nights on the town like this one. Who cared about the cold, really? There was wine, and brandy, and rum, and they warmed him from the inside out, and what's more they turned the streets of this gritty little town into a romantic paradise and turned the skinny girl on his arm into a veritable Aphrodite. He had lost Louis back in the tavern somewhere, between bottles of wine and pretty women; they could meet up again in the morning. His friend had probably gone home with the redhead who'd been sitting on his lap, and he intended to do the same with this girl.

"Your place, chérie?" he murmured, putting his arm around her waist. In the dark, with only the streetlamps for illumination, he saw her in flashes and shadows: the gleam of taffeta, the flame of a lamp reflected in her eyes, light shining off a strand of pale hair or a red-painted lip. Warm, drunk, full of anticipation, he found her unutterably beautiful.

"As long as you haven't drunk all your money away yet," she said, and pressed closer as though to mitigate any belligerence in her words. "Come on." And she led him through streets that became ever shabbier, to a ramshackle building on the edge of town, up a dilapidated staircase to the very top floor.

The garret was dark and cold, but the girl stoked up the coals in the fireplace into a small fire, lit a few candles and began unfastening her dress. Her bosom exposed, she turned back to Enjolras and took his hand. "Come to bed, dearie."

"Bed" was a straw pallet in the corner with threadbare sheets and a ragged coverlet, which she lay down on and began taking care of the rest of her clothing. Not caring about the abject state of his surroundings, seeing only her skin in the candlelight, he bent to join her and almost fell over from an attack of dizziness. "I... I think I've had too much to drink."

"Lie down," she said, "it'll make it easier." She grasped his hands again and pulled him down on top of her, unbuttoning his trousers as she allowed him to bemusedly cup her breasts in his hands. "See, that's better, isn't it?"

"I'm not sure." It was all terribly beautiful, to be sure, and her flesh was cool and soft beneath his burning hands and the candlelight gleamed against her hair, but the lightheadedness hadn't subsided and was now accompanied by a most unpleasant nausea. "Oh God, I shouldn't have drunk so much." He peered muddily at her face and sighed, running his hands down her sides and wishing fervently that whatever rum-induced sickness this was would go away so he could enjoy himself.

She broke away from undressing him to put a steadying hand on his shoulder. "Are you going to be all right?"

"I don't kn—" The nausea overwhelmed him and he had only enough time to turn away from her before he threw up all over the floor. She made a face, briefly, and extricated herself from underneath him, but then her disgust seemed to pass and she held his head as he retched, making small soothing noises and patting his back when he was done.

"Oh God, I'm sorry—"

"Shh." She retrieved a chipped pitcher from another corner of the room, poured some water onto a discarded petticoat, and began to wipe at his face with it. "It's all right, the floor's seen worse." He squirmed like a child at her ministrations, and when she released him he swayed on his feet, still not feeling well.

"All right now?"

"I don't think so..." This time he had time to stagger to the chamber pot instead of vomiting all over the floor. Afterwards he seized the pitcher and, ignoring the chilliness that still pervaded the room, dumped the remaining water directly over his head.

He sat down on the floor, shivering. His head seemed clearer, now, whether it was the water or the purging that had done it. He took in the state of the room now as he hadn't before, as though he had a newer, clearer set of eyes: the sloping ceiling, the absence of furniture, the raggedness of the pitiful excuse for a bed. Suddenly nothing about the place seemed beautiful anymore; whatever enchantment his drunkenness had given him had worn off. He looked up at the girl and bit back a cry.

Now that he looked at her, really looked at her, she seemed almost hideous. She could hardly be called a girl, really; she could easily have been ten years his senior. Sitting there naked on the mattress, watching him almost maternally through eyes framed with dark circles and premature wrinkles, she seemed impossibly old. He felt as though he were seeing her for the first time: thin, shivering, the hair that gleamed so prettily in the candlelight cropped short and tangled, breasts sagging, nipples shrunk to tiny points in the cold air. "Better?" she said, and he saw that she was missing teeth. He shuddered.

"Put your clothes on," he said for lack of any other words, "please, you're freezing." He fumbled at his own buttons with clumsy fingers, trying without success to refasten his clothing.

"Come warm me up then, m'sieur," she said dryly, "a little vomit isn't enough to keep me from spending the night with you. Like I said, the floor's seen worse, and so have I."

"I don't want to. No, I can't." The realization of the state of the woman before him was followed quickly by the realization of just how she made her meager living, and he found himself unable to meet her eyes, let alone go ahead with the ostensible purpose of the evening. "I—God. You have to deal with this all the time? Drunk men pawing at you, throwing up on your floor, using you, all for a handful of sous, for a flat that's barely more than a hole in the wall? How can you..."

"I get by," she said softly. "Don't fret over me. Now come to bed, would you? I need the money, and I'd rather earn it with someone young and handsome and considerate than the louts back at the tavern."

"Money?" he said, gazing hopelessly around her miserable excuse for a room and feeling around in his pockets. "Here. You asked for twenty sous for the night, here are fifteen francs. And you're under no obligation to—" He shuddered in sudden disgust at what had almost transpired. "You know. I know it won't buy you more than a few days, but it's the least I can do. For God's sake spend some time away from your ghastly work."

She stared at him as he shoved the money into her hands, bit every coin to make sure it was real, and kept rubbing her fingers along the edges as if to assure herself that it wouldn't disappear. "Monsieur, I don't know why you're doing this, but I think you should know that with this money you have just saved my daughter's life."

"You have a daughter?" He looked around again—the place was dreadful enough to live in, but to grow up in? He shuddered again. "She lives here? Where is she?"

"Not here!" she snapped. "I may be a fallen woman, but I know better than to raise a child like this! She's with good people, pure as the day she was born, and I pay them to take care of her. And—they tell me she's broken her arm, poor dear, and the doctor is so expensive, and your fifteen francs have just saved her, monsieur." She began putting her clothes back on and dropped the coins into a pocket, but the mention of her daughter seemed to have set loose a torrent of words. "It gets so lonely here, without her, sometimes I think I'd rather die than go on like this, but who would support her then? You seem like a nice enough sort of boy, you'd understand. This kind of life is bad, but it's bearable, it becomes bearable when you know that every time you close your eyes and let somebody have his way with you you're keeping your child alive. It's the loneliness that gets unbearable. You wish so badly to have your child here with you, but of course she can't be. It gets so that when a pretty young thing like you comes in, stumbling drunk like a child who's gotten into the sherry, you don't want to lie down with him, you want to mother him and make sure he doesn't get himself hurt." She finished fastening her dress and began putting her hair in order as best she could without a mirror. "Though if you want to, m'sieur, you've more than paid for it. Are you sure you don't want to?"

"I don't think I could," he said, aghast. "I had no idea, or I would never have bought—well, I wouldn't be here. I'm sorry."

She wiped a trickle of pitcher water off his face and set to work buttoning up his trousers where his still-clumsy fingers had failed. "Don't be. Like I said, I get by, and you've just done me a great thing." Satisfied that his clothing was in a reasonable state of order, she stepped back to inspect him. "Now. Are you going to be all right?"

"I think so. I feel less drunk now. Is there anything else I can do to help you?"

"You can keep yourself sober and not go around buying whores, that's what you can do," she said, and though the words were harsh her tone was gentle. "How old are you, anyway? You can't be more than fourteen. If I had a fourteen-year-old son..."

"Sixteen, actually."

"Sixteen. Don't waste your youth." She planted a motherly sort of kiss on his forehead, leaving a print of red paint where her lips touched him, and turned for the door. "Good night, monsieur."

"Wait!" he called after her. "Where are you going?"

She turned around, smiling sadly. "To work."

"But the fifteen francs—"

"Saved my daughter's life. Now it's time for me to earn my living."

He dug around in his pockets, but they were empty. "Look, I don't have anything else with me now, but I could give you more, let you stop working long enough to find an honest job, something..."

She laughed, and it turned into a dry, hacking cough. "I couldn't keep an honest job before because I had an illegitimate daughter. What do you think they'd think of me now?"

"But there must be something to do!"

"There's nothing, monsieur. It's the way it works." She opened the door.

"Then somebody has to change the way it works. It's monstrous."

"That may be, but who's going to change it? You?"

"If I could—"

"—then you would. But can you?"

The door closed behind her, and she was gone. The question lingered in the air like her cheap perfume, and Enjolras leaned heavily against the wall, suddenly aware that he was still drunk, stranded in the bad end of an unfamiliar town, and now without money. He pushed himself to his feet and left the room, went back out into the road, made his stumbling way back to the tavern. As he walked, the woman's parting words ricocheted around constantly in his head.

Can I?