"Lips," Polly said significantly, "that have touched blood, shall never touch mine."

She sat back and waited for effect. It was a long time coming. Maladicta was nursing the last drops of her coffee with the intensity of a caffeine addict who has been on campaign long enough to be making her coffee at half strength, and then eking it out as long as possible.

Finally, Mal looked up from the dregs of her mug and said, sourly, "You're cutting down your pool of potential romantic partners to trolls and golems, then?"

Polly gave her what was, for Polly, quite a nasty look. "I think the point is blood touching lips from outside, not as an integral part of the lips, sort of thing."

"I see." Mal put down her empty mug, and leaned back on her hands. The camp firelight flickered on her pale skin, breaking it into plays of orange light broken by deep shadow. Her eyes, however, didn't pick up a single golden spark. They glowed in their own way, but it was the dark glow of absolute, vampiric focus, rather than anything Polly associated with fire or daylight or human warmth. Sometimes, when Mal's eyes were focused on her with particular intensity, Polly wondered if a wizard would recognise their dark light as octarine.

Polly was beginning to feel a little uncomfortable. She had been trying very hard for Mal's full attention, if she was being honest with herself, but Mal's full attention was always - so very much attention.

Finally, Mal said, "Don't you think this might be a little difficult to enforce? Not that I pretend to know much about romance, but I should think that pausing before a first kiss to ask 'By the way, cast your mind back, did you ever fall over as a kid and split your lip?' might spoil the mood."

"Perhaps I got the tense wrong," Polly said uncertainly. "Lips that touch blood will never touch mine?" Mal opened her mouth, teeth gleaming in the firelight, and Polly hurried to get in first. "I'm not talking about literally blood-red lipstick, either!"

"So it's acceptable for the lips to touch blood in-between kisses, just not simultaneously?" Maladicta asked, somewhat nastily, Polly thought.

"Don't be deliberately obstructive."

"It might be helpful if you told me exactly what I was obstructing."

Polly felt heat creeping over her face. It had all seemed so simple and logical when she was planning the conversation out. Now she was actually having it, it was kind of - embarrassing. The truth was, however you looked at her, Mal wasn't exactly the touchy-feely emotional type. It was probably something to do with being a vampire and being used to close embraces ending in the death of one of the participants.

"Well, when we were in Ankh-Morpork..." Polly and Mal had become the Borogravian ambassadors of choice to Ankh-Morpork, due to what Polly was sure was the entirely erroneous premise that the Duke of Ankh quite liked them. She was pretty sure that the Duke of Ankh didn't like anybody much; she'd heard rumours that he was a devoted husband and father, but she wasn't sure she believed them. "I got in touch with Otto van Chriek, and he suggested I might like to go along to a kind of special support group and sing-a-long for Black Ribboners and the people who love them. Um."

"So that's where you went off to. Did you enjoy it?" Polly couldn't tell from whether Mal's gentle, patient tone meant she was being kind, or was about to rip Polly's head off. It could probably go either way.

"It was... interesting. It was led by a... um... John Smith. He was... odd." They had all been odd. Polly had been quite impressed, though, by the level of support given by family members when people inherited vampirism. The baby with the tiny fake fangs and carefully printed on widow's peak, clutching his little black blankie and stuffed bat, had charmed the life out of her. "We sang songs."

"How sweet. And that was a song."

"Yes! That is, the idea is that the best way Black Ribboners and the people in relationships with them can support them is by..."

"...kissing them."

"Yes! I mean, not precisely kissing. Just by... well, supporting them. You. Them. Just so long as you don't, you know..." Polly cleared her throat uncomfortably. "'Wives, maidens and mothers, to you it is given, to rescue the fallen and point them to Dunmanifestin.' Something like that, anyway. It probably scans better in Morporkian. I thought it might, you know, help." It was probably possible, Polly thought, to die of embarrassment. "I'm sorry, that was stupid."

"You thought I needed help?"

"You needn't sound so defensive. Mr. Smith said the first step on the road to recovery was admitting you have a problem."

"I don't have a problem!" Maladicta stopped sniffing the lingering smell of coffee beans on the empty sack on her hand, and put it down.

"If you say so." A combination of embarrassment and hurt feelings was beginning to make Polly lose her own temper, but she bit it down.

"Polly, why did you go to that particular group?"

Because you were always watching me, right from the start, and at first I thought you watched everyone that way and it was just a vampire thing because you were trying to work out how we'd taste, and then I realised it was only me you were watching. Because I wondered why. Because I started to watch back. Because... well, you understood about Lofty and Tonks, and you seemed really, really pleased when I figured it out, too. Because you watched me even though you knew I was a girl. Because - because I misunderstood everything, obviously, and now I wish I could crawl into my sleeping bag and never have to look at you again.

"Because you're my best friend."

"I'm touched."

"Oh, shut up! There's no need to be so sarcastic when I'm just trying -"

"No, I mean it. I suppose I'm just disappointed." Grimaces were far more effective when you had the teeth to pull it off. I mean, you did say the group was for Black Ribboners and people who loved them." Mal reached for the empty coffee sack again.

Polly was suddenly very conscious of everything: the stars, the sounds of the camp nearby (far too nearby), the way Maladicta wasn't quite pulling off stylishly causal nonchalance as well as she usually managed.

"Ah," was all Polly said.

"And then there was all this talk about kissing." Mal was definitely trying for an off-hand tone, but there was something very close to shakiness there.

"Ah," Polly said again. "Oh. Um... how long has it been since your lips have touched blood? Just out of curiosity." Her own voice was shaking, but she didn't care.

"About three years, give or take a person."

"Really?" Definitely a shake. "Well, we could test the lips touching theory. Just to see if it works..."

Hundreds of years of practice, Polly found, really did pay off. No one could pounce quite as well as a vampire.