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Well, he'd survived one more night in the trenches, but whether he was going to survive breakfast was another matter. Blackadder regarded the bowl of sludge à la Baldrick with justified suspicion, lifting a spoonful of the glop out of the mess tin and turning it over to wait for it to drip. If anything, it clung. He sighed.

"Baldrick, why does this porridge have the colour and consistency of a mud pie that's been run through the digestive system of an elderly poodle in questionable health, vomited back up again, and then left to stagnate in a region particularly known for its swamp-like climate? Such as, for example, your underpants."

Baldrick stood, insofar as he was capable of it, to attention. "Well... it's substitute porridge, sir."

Of course. "Substituted with what, exactly?" he asked, probably unwisely.

"Ground turnips," Baldrick confided with a smile.

"I see," he said. "And this was considered preferable to eating the turnip in its original, unmolested form, why?"

"Well, it's only partly turnip," Baldrick explained helpfully.

"Oh, good." Blackadder took a deep breath, steeling himself. "And what precisely is making up the other parts?"

"Sawdust."

That was when George entered the dug-out, eyes brightening at the sight of Blackadder's so-called breakfast. "Oh, I say, jolly old porridge again? Can't believe our luck. You know, when I was at school, sir, there was nothing finer than a steaming bowl of porridge for brekkers before going for a run round the rugby fields and then a lovely game of 'find the submarine' in the baths with all your pals. Puts hairs on your chest!"

"Yes," Blackadder said, setting his bowl aside. The spoon remained rigidly upright, as if cemented in place. "If I get any more chest hair, I'll be able to disguise myself as a French peasant woman and make my escape from the front lines by piling Baldrick's socks in a basket and telling everybody I'm selling a particularly piquant brand of cheese."

George laughed politely and immediately forgot every word of it, his default response to anything that didn't fit into his worldview - which was about as myopic as the offspring of a bat and mole that had accidently left the covers on its binoculars during a trip to the bottom of a coal mine.

"And we got the rum ration as well this week," he said cheerfully. "They really are spoiling us, aren't they, sir?"

Blackadder sighed. "Yes, it's a very generous gesture, which I'm sure is in no way related to the fact that every time they give the men in the trenches rum, it's almost immediately followed by the order to go over the top."

George, who was impervious to sarcasm and many other things, continued to smile vapidly.

"My mother told me never to go over the top," Baldrick put in, his tiny brain having latched onto some words it vaguely recognised and produced what might be generously termed a thought. Blackadder preferred not to dignify these attempts at conversation with a response, but unfortunately, George had no such compunction.

"Oh, really, Balders? Why's that?"

"Well," Baldrick took a moment to muster his words, "she said, if you're too over the top, your ear will come off."

He would regret enquiring into this train of logic. He knew he would. "And how did she arrive at this unassailable conclusion?" he asked.

"Ah, well," Baldrick said. "You see, my Great-Uncle Baldrick was too over the top doing his job, and his ear came off."

George's eyes were as wide as dinner plates. "I say!" he said, looking at Blackadder. "That's a bit of a sobering cautionary tale, isn't it?"

"Yes," Blackadder said, very dryly. "And what exactly was your Great-Uncle Baldrick's job, Baldrick? Just out of interest."

"He was a sword-polisher."

Blessedly, he was rescued at this moment by the ringing of the phone. "Good morning, Somme fine dining. We deliver if you live more than fifty miles from the front."

There was the brief pause that he'd come to associate with Captain Darling rearranging his mental furniture. "Captain Blackadder. The General wants to see you here at headquarters at once."

"Ah, marvellous." He hung up without ceremony, and rose from his seat. "That was HQ. They want me over there. Which means that, alarming news though it is for the fraction of our forces that haven't yet been shelled to death, George, you'll be holding the fort."

George snorted in amusement. "Ah, not to pull you up on that one, Captain, but it's actually a trench, not a fort," he corrected. "Anyone would think you were going a bit loopy from all this time cooped up waiting for our chance to smite the Huns!"

"Yes, I suspect it's altitude sickness from the distance at which things go over your head," he said.

"You should be careful, Captain B," Baldrick put in. "With mistakes like that, somebody might suspect you was a German spy."

"Yes, well, if crimes against English comprehension got you taken out and shot, Baldrick, you'd be first against the wall." He retrieved his hat. "Sadly for us all, even our generals can work out that the Germans putting a spy in our trenches is about as useful as a welcome sign on a nun's knickers. Right, I'm off."

Even a brief trip away from the idiots he shared a trench with was always a blessing.

If only there hadn't been an even greater set of idiots waiting for him at the other end.

*

"You called, Darling?" he said, as he strode into Staff Headquarters. Darling twitched.

"We'll have none of your usual impertinence, Blackadder!" he said sternly. "General Melchett has spent the last four hours in a top level meeting with General Fotherington, who's come here all the way from London to discuss the progress of the war effort."

"And what did they do with the other three hours and fifty-nine minutes?" Blackadder asked politely.

Darling vibrated with disapproval, but had to stifle it as Melchett strode into the room with a blarting noise like a sheep giving birth to a brick. Blackadder was half convinced that the moustache made these noises, independent of the man attached to it. "Ah, Captain Blackadder! Just the man I wanted to see." He was followed out by a portly, waddling man with a ruddy face that was also occupied by an enormous walrus moustache (ginger variety).

"I made haste here as soon as I got your summons," he said. Mainly because Melchett's HQ was thirty-five miles behind the front lines and tended to accelerate further in that direction any time one of the Germans coughed, and also had the side benefit of not containing Baldrick.

"General Fotherington has come here from London for a glimpse of the harsh conditions we face here on the front lines," Melchett said.

"Quite right, quite right," Fotherington said, with the self-important nodding of a backbencher in the houses of Parliament, which he probably was.

"Oh, really," Blackadder said. "I can see how the switch from seven-course meals to a mere three courses would be a real blow to morale." Assessing conditions in the trenches from the opulence of Melchett's Staff HQ was like assessing conditions in the Arctic by opening the door of your tropical beach hut on a slightly breezy day.

"Yes, but by God, we persevere," Melchett said, clutching the front of his uniform with deep emotion. "We heroically fight on, tightening our belts though we face the most deprived of conditions... Fetch the port and cigars from the other room, would you, Darling?" he added as an aside.

"Yes, I can see how much your belt has tightened," Blackadder said, as Darling toadied off to do his bidding, still eyeing Blackadder with simmering suspicion. "If it gets any tighter, you're in danger of needing a bigger belt."

"Exactly," said Melchett, whose ability to hear only what he expected to hear exceeded even George's. The wonders of a university education. "And that's why Fozzy here has been sent to compile a report on what conditions are really like for your average man in the trench."

"I see. And will he be speaking with any of the average men in the trenches?" Blackadder enquired.

"Good God, no!" Melchett said. "You can't expect the typical rough-edged Tommy to have the wit and education to properly comprehend his own position."

He contemplated George and Baldrick. "Yes, I suppose that is true. Ah, thank you, Darling," he said, as Darling arrived with the booze and cigars. Darling executed a fast pirouette - no doubt honed by years of rapid flight from anything that resembled actual danger - to keep it out of his way before Blackadder could help himself.

"Cigar, Blackadder?" Melchett offered, obliviously thwarting his underling's designs.

But Darling had enough petty malevolence to spare. "Oh, I'm sure Captain Blackadder wouldn't want any privileges that set him apart from his men," he said, smiling nastily.

"Yes... unfortunately, the ship rather sailed on that one when Mr Darwin first drew up his chart showing how men diverged from the apes," Blackadder said. Although he suspected that Baldrick had diverged somewhat earlier than that.

"Quite right, Darling, quite right," Melchett said nonetheless, yanking the cigar box away from him again, and giving him a hearty clap on the shoulder to add injury to insult. "That's the kind of self-sacrificing nature we always like to see in our men." He lit a cigar for himself instead.

Blackadder's mind whirled as he saw a way to turn this situation to his advantage. "Sir, I fear that a brief visit to the front lines could never be enough for even a man of General Fotherington's immense stature to fully grasp the complexities of the situation," he said. "Might I suggest that what's really needed is for someone with front-line experience to accompany the general back to London where he can compile his report at leisure."

Extreme leisure, ideally involving complete access to the general's budget and the company of a bevy of attractive women who were very impressed by his war record, but frankly, he'd settle for any posting that didn't involve squatting in a trench across from hostile Germans with the likes of Private Baldrick.

"That's a wonderful idea, Blackadder," Melchett said, "but I simply can't be spared from the front line."

"Of course not," Blackadder agreed. "We've advanced five yards in the whole of the last year - imagine where we'd have been without your leadership."

"Well, quite."

"It seems to me that what's needed is someone of sufficient rank to have a well-rounded grasp of the war effort," not difficult; a three-month-old baby that had just mastered the art of 'ooh look, there's a finger' would be able to get a decent grasp of the war effort, "but not so high in the leadership that his absence would be a huge blow to our battle plans. Say, perhaps... a captain?" he suggested, casually inspecting his nails.

"Excellent thought, Blackadder," Melchett said, nodding. "Make a note of that, Darling."

Fotherington just mumbled indistinctly into his port glass, but judging by the way he was guzzling the stuff down, he'd be all in favour of being assigned an aide to do all that inconvenient report-writing that went into writing a report. And probably not be bothered about overseeing the process closely enough to wonder why it was taking a month to craft each paragraph.

"Now, tell me, do you have anyone that you'd recommend for the task?" Melchett asked.

Here was where a little delicacy was required. "Well, naturally it would have to be someone with great familiarity with day-to-day operations in the trenches," he mused aloud. "Though of course, one wouldn't wish to leave the brave young men of his former command in the lurch, so perhaps one who had served with a particularly fine Lieutenant who could be relied upon to step into the breach... a man of the calibre of young George, say."

Blackadder could at least say with a straight face that he considered George a fine example of a British officer, provided he wasn't called upon to enumerate what the defining traits of that breed actually were.

"Mm." Melchett nodded wisely, then bolted upright in the grip of a sudden brainwave. "George is a young man of the calibre of George," he said.

"Indeed he is, sir," Blackadder agreed smoothly. "And finally, I feel the ideal candidate for the job would be someone that you've had regular dealings with yourself, just so you can give the appointment your personal seal of approval." It was a dangerous game expecting Melchett to remember his dealings with those under his command from one moment to the next, but the fact Blackadder was currently standing less than two feet away from the man ought to give him a competitive edge.

General Fotherington slurred something indecipherable into his moustache before gulping down another glass of port.

"So glad you agree, General," Blackadder said with an ingratiating smile.

"Ah, but Blackadder," Darling butted in, just before Melchett was guaranteed to have the inevitable revelation. "Aren't you forgetting something?"

"Aren't you forgetting, Darling, that I'm about as interested in your opinion as I am tap-dancing across no man's land in a barbed wire skirt, singing a rousing verse of 'Come and Get Us Fritz, If You Think Your Aim is Good Enough'?" he hissed viciously.

Darling smirked. "Obviously the captain chosen would have to be appropriately accomplished in the field of report-writing." The generals both muttered and nodded along, and Blackadder stiffened. The sneaky bastard was hijacking his escape plan for himself! "For instance, forgive me for saying so, Blackadder, but the reports from your section are somewhat... lacking." He bounced on his heels smugly.

Blackadder stared him down from aggressively close up. "Yes, well, that's what happens when you're on the front lines, ducking German fire about as often as a ninety-year-old contestant in a beer-drinking competition ducks out to go to the lavatory. It tends to make your handwriting go wonky!" That and the fact that if it was a choice between having writing paper or toilet paper, everybody's dear old mother back in England would have to make do with heartfelt missives from her only son that were written on the back of a biscuit - which was certainly a better use of the biscuits they were issued than eating the things.

Unfortunately, once furnished with an idea Melchett tended to let go of it about as easily as a terrier with lockjaw that had accidentally glued its dentures together. "Good thinking, Darling!" he agreed. "Can't very well have a report writer who's no good at writing reports - that would be like leaving the leadership to people who are no good at leading!"

Darling was beside himself with vindictive glee. "Perhaps the candidates should be required to submit a report demonstrating why they'd be the best man for the job." His smile broadened. "In triplicate. With footnotes."

The devious little pencil-pusher knew he'd set a field of battle at which no one else was anal enough to compete.

*

Blackadder steamed his way back to the trenches in a foul mood. "That utter, utter bastard," he said, as he entered the dug-out and tossed his cap down.

"I say, sir, you're in a frightful strop," said George, master of observation. "Have our plans for a final push against Harry Hun been put off again?"

Blackadder gave him a sidelong look. "George, if that was the case, I would have come into the trench whistling a happy little tune and handing out humbugs to orphan children. No, I'm afraid it's much worse than that - that absolute swine of a paperclip fondler at HQ has turned my foolproof plan to get a cushy posting back in London into a schoolboy essay-writing competition! He's as good as got the job in the bag, sitting there in his big fancy office with all the facts and figures at his disposal. What have I got? Half a broken pencil and a used envelope that smells suspiciously of cabbage. Baldrick!"

Baldrick wandered in, brightening at the sight of the envelope in Blackadder's hands. "Oh, you found the care package my mum sent me. I was looking for that!"

Blackadder fixed him with a dubious stare. "Your mother sent you an envelope full of cabbage leaves as care package?" Admittedly, if he had by some godforsaken travesty of nature birthed a Baldrick, he wouldn't have made very much effort either, but the bloody woman might at least have sent something worth confiscating.

"Of course not!" Baldrick said, injured. "The cabbage leaves were merely a cunning ruse to distract would-be thieves from the real contents."

"And they were?" he asked, not optimistically.

Baldrick leaned in conspiratorially. "Turnip seeds."

Blackadder sighed heavily. "Yes. I didn't have high hopes, but somehow you've managed to ooze beneath them yet again." He tossed the envelope aside. "Baldrick, find me some writing paper. Mine has gone missing - if I didn't know better, I'd say somebody had been burning the stuff."

"Ah," Baldrick said. It wasn't a heartening sound. Blackadder raised a finely sharpened eyebrow to prod him into continuing. "Well, I was saying to the Lieutenant the other day, wouldn't it be nice if we had a little bit of a fire in here? And he said, 'Yes, it would be nice if we had a little bit of a fire in here.'"

"Yes, I did say that," George said, nodding helpfully. "I remember it distinctly."

"So then I said, but how are we going to have a fire when we haven't got anything in here to burn?"

"Quite a poser, I think you'll agree, sir," said George, widening his eyes.

"And then I said, well, what about burning some paper? And then he said-"

"Yes, thank you, I feel I've grasped enough of the gist of your little tale," Blackadder said, raising a hand to halt a flow of words that could otherwise go on all night. "I don't want to spoil the adaptation for the stage when they put it on at Christmas." He slumped wearily in his chair. "God. The only thing worse than losing out on the perfect opportunity to sit the war out back in Blighty is losing it to Darling. That gutless wonder's been hiding away at staff HQ since the war began! The most unpleasant action he's faced at the front is a nasty papercut."

"Gosh, he sounds like a right cowardly custard," George said. "Scheming to get out of doing his bit while the rest of us proudly march out to fight the Hun menace - it makes you sick, doesn't it, sir?"

"I'll say - he's doing exactly what I would do, and getting away with it!" Blackadder said. "Once again, fate urinates up my trouser leg." He straightened up. "Well, he might think he's won, but I'm not going to concede without a fight. I'm going to make damned sure that my report is the best one on the general's desk by a country mile."

"Well, hurrah!" George said. "With a bit of spunk and elbow grease and some healthy manly sweat?"

"No, George, we're not going to win this one with disgusting bodily secretions," he said. "This calls for a spot of good old-fashioned sabotage..."

*

When breaking into one's own side's headquarters, it was wise to bring a man you trusted with your life to act as your lookout. In the absence of one of those, you could always bring two moderately reliable men who would be able to keep each other from slacking off.

Blackadder, on the other hand, had to make do with bringing a pair of complete tits that he could throw to the wolves as a distraction if he threatened to get caught.

"Now," he said with strained patience as they gathered outside headquarters, "you remember the story I told you to tell if we get caught?"

"You heard there was a spider quartering heads, and came here to invest in the right gate," Baldrick dutifully recited. Blackadder rapped him smartly on the top of the head. "Ow!"

"I heard there was a spy at headquarters, and came right here to investigate," he enunciated clearly, without much hope that the words would go in.

"A spy?" George said rather too loudly, wide-eyed with alarm as he looked around as if expecting a German to jump out from under a bush. Which would make said German considerably more advanced at the art of self-concealment than either of Blackadder's two partners in crime. "Cripes! Hadn't we better sound the alarm?"

Blackadder sighed. "A lot escapes you, doesn't it, George?"

"Well, not spies, I can tell you!" he said with confidence. "I was always the best at catching Slippery Dick at school."

He almost certainly shouldn't ask, especially not at this juncture, and yet the morbid curiosity compelled him. "Catching 'Slippery Dick'?" he articulated carefully.

"Yes, he was one of the boys in our dorm," George explained. "Always sneaking around in the dark - had the most frightful nightmares, you see. Why, barely a night went by when he wasn't climbing into one of the other boys' beds! They used to pull his pyjamas down and give him a right old spanking when they caught him. Although strangely that never seemed to put him off," he mused.

"Indeed," Blackadder said. "George, your school stories are a never-ending well of insight into the crucible of simmering potential from which our nation's great leaders spring forth."

"We did have a gay old time," George said fondly.

"Yes, well, be that as it may, we're not here for you to take a nostalgic rummage through the contents of that lump between your ears you call a brain, so just stand out here and keep watch, all right?" He had little faith in either of his men's abilities in that arena, but at least the commotion of them getting caught ought to alert him.

"Aye aye, sir!" George puffed himself up proudly and saluted. Baldrick... remained Baldrick.

"Although... there is one thing that's been nagging at the old noggin about this whole affair, sir," George added as Blackadder turned to make his escape.

"Just the one?" he said sceptically.

George screwed his face up with the effort of deep cogitation. "Well... this is our Staff Headquarters, the beating heart of our mighty bulwark against the Hun offensive, guarded by the finest military minds our nation can muster, so, er... how are you going to get in?

"The same way anyone gets in to any top secret facility full of high-level nobs," he said. "Turn up wearing a stolen skirt and a brassiere over my uniform, pretend to vomit in the nearest shrubbery, and claim I left my ID and my trousers somewhere in a field on my way back from a truly spectacular piss-up."

*

The access plan worked like a charm, and Blackadder was soon safely ensconced in General Melchett's empty office, going through Darling's desk.

"Now, if I was a report on qualifications in advanced toadying, just where would I be...?" He was certain that Darling would have finished the thing already; the overachieving little weasel had probably been the first to turn in his homework at school every week. He'd probably used special paper and multiple different colours of ink. And Blackadder just bet he'd always told the teachers any time they'd forgotten to ask for it back.

You'd think a man with a name like Darling and an attitude that screamed that his mother had sent him to school every day with a napkin to tuck into his shirt when he ate his sandwiches would have developed some better techniques for defending his desk from unpleasant surprises, but perhaps he was under the delusion the British armed forces were more mature than schoolboys. Which was especially foolish considering that most of them were schoolboys. You couldn't walk along a trench without tripping over hordes of so-called men who were four foot tall, snotty-nosed and sporting moustaches drawn on with ink. And the ones who were taller and cleaner were usually girls.

God, he was looking forward to getting out of here.

He gave a small smirk of triumph as one of Darling's beloved paperclips allowed him to pick the lock on the desk. "Haha! Obviously not used to people trying to get into your drawers, are you, Darling?" And small wonder, considering how boring the contents were. Everything was so neatly filed away, it took all the fun out of burglary.

But wait, what was this? Something stuck to the underside of the wood, as if to hide it from less suspicious prying eyes than Blackadder's. He tugged the envelope free with glee. So Darling had a secret? Now here was something much more promising than a mere sabotage opportunity. He tried to imagine what kind of blackmail-worthy material Darling might keep in his desk. Dirty pictures? No, for him that would probably mean a photograph of some files that needed sorting. He opened up the envelope, and found a hand-written letter inside.

That was when the doors slammed open and Captain Darling marched in, carrying a lantern and armed with a service revolver. "Captain Blackadder! At last you show your true colours," he said triumphantly. The effect would have been a bit more dramatic if he hadn't been wearing striped pyjamas, slippers, and a fluffy dressing gown.

"Ah, thank you, Darling. I was just thinking I needed a bit more light," Blackadder said, barely looking up from the letter.

"Don't think you're getting out of it this time, Blackadder!" Darling said. He chortled maliciously. "Caught spying at staff headquarters? It'll be a dawn appointment with the firing squad for sure."

"Oh, how lovely," Blackadder said absently, still reading the contents of the letter. "I still owe them a thank you for that balaclava they sent me at Christmas." The note had read, 'To keep you from freezing your ears off - always good to have something to aim between!'

Darling scowled at his refusal to play along with the theatrics. "You won't be laughing when I inform General Melchett of this!" he threatened, with all the menace of the teacher's pet preparing to report the bigger boys who'd taken his pencil.

"I wouldn't be too hasty about that, Darling," Blackadder said. "Not unless you want me to show him... this." He flourished the letter.

Darling paled dramatically. "That's classified information, Blackadder!" he snapped. "I'll have you shot for this!"

"Oh, really?" He perused the letter again. "Do all your superiors address you as 'My most darling of Darlings'?"

Darling gave a very satisfying twitch. "All right, it's private correspondence!" he amended. "You have no right-"

"There's no privacy in war, Darling, you know that," Blackadder said. "And anyway, what could possibly be incriminating about a letter that reads," he consulted it, "Missing you lots and lots and wishing you were here in your dashing uniform to snuggle, your snookie-wookums... Boris."

"Doris!" he squawked urgently. "It says Doris!"

Blackadder inspected the signature sceptically. Never mind deniability - that was the most B-like B since Beatrice the bee won the 'Best in Hive at Bee-Like Behaviour' competition. "Darling, either you have a girlfriend who's so ill-educated she can't even spell her own name, or you're receiving love letters from a man named Boris," he said.

There was an obvious internal struggle as Darling tried to decide which of those options it appalled him more to have to admit to.

It seemed that being a stickler for spelling standards won. "Look, what do you want in order to keep this quiet?" he said, stepping closer. He raised his chin. "I warn you now, if you think this gives you licence to blackmail me for some kind of perverted sexual favours, I shall resist with every honourable breath in my body!"

"So, for about thirty seconds, then?" Well, as entertaining as that might have been, he did have much higher priorities. "No, immediate transfer away from the front line back to London will do for me."

"Impossible!" Darling insisted, diverted from his quivering indignation. "General Melchett has to sign off on any transfer orders."

That was probably even true, or else the scheming coward would have organised his own ticket home years ago.

"Fine," Blackadder said. "Then you can switch the names on the reports we've been writing for General Fotherington and pass mine off as yours." And should the bizarre process that passed for decision-making among the nation's generals decide his own report had actually been superior after all, he could simply reveal the deception and blame it all on Darling. "And make sure yours includes plenty to illustrate why I'm the top man for the job."

"I'm not sure about that, Blackadder," Darling said, recovering some of his customary sneering poise. "Fiction-writing was never really one of my strengths."

"I'm not surprised, Darling, you show about as much imagination as the fifty-seventh man to show up to a soldier's costume party in his uniform claiming that he's come dressed as a British army captain." He looked Darling pointedly up and down. "Although in your case it really is a disguise."

Darling glowered and shook a finger. "I'll have you know-"

"Nonetheless," Blackadder cut him off pointedly, "if it doesn't strain your facilities too much, perhaps you should try to imagine how General Melchett will react if I inform him of your private correspondence with... Boris."

"All right!" Darling caved about as fast as Baldrick's attempt at cunningly shoring up a mud wall with more mud. "I'll write your report. And don't think I won't be glad to see the back of you!"

"Then it's a shame for you I'll be transferring somewhere that you won't get a chance to look at it," he said. "Goodnight, Darling." He left the room whistling.

Things were definitely looking up.

*

Blackadder faced the day's breakfast with, if not precisely a song in his heart, then perhaps less of a protest movement in his bowels than was traditional. This was almost certain to be the last meal that he ate in the trenches - and not for the usual reason that men in the trenches faced a last meal.

"Ah, porridge again, I see." At least it beat any riskier form of culinary experiment. "Nicely lukewarm, too. And may I compliment the chef on this morning's selection of sawdust? Barely even any woodworm this time."

"I picked them out," Baldrick informed him proudly.

"Of course. That personal touch that's come to distinguish your unique brand of cooking so well," he said.

"Well, you're in a chipper mood this morning, Cap, and no mistake!" George said.

"Chipper? George, I'm as chipper as a chipmunk that's just cashed his chips and chipped in for a share of a chip shop in Chipping Sodbury. And do you know why?"

He was even in a good enough mood not to be too depressed when his alleged men actually tried to guess.

"You've just won the All-Trenches Slug-Herding Championships," Baldrick said.

"Close, but no," he said.

"Oh, good, I'm glad me and Squelchy are still in with a chance."

"Gosh, I love a good guessing game," George said. He wrinkled his face up in thought. "Hmm, this is a toughie. Er... you've just received a lovely hamper full of goodies from the folks back home?"

"George, the only kind of hamper that anyone in my family ever gave anybody was full of dirty socks," he said. "No, I'm afraid the reason that I'm in such fine fettle this morning is simply that I'm about to leave this place for good, and will never again have to stand in a ditch full of water shouting 'bang!' at the Germans because the generals decided it would lull them into a false sense of security if we weren't issued bullets." He sat back and stretched. "By this time tomorrow, I'll be back in London, taking eighteen months to put together a report that could be summed up on a napkin and impressing all the women with the war wound I got when I couldn't get that tin of condensed milk open."

"Well, we shall miss you here in the trenches, Captain B," Baldrick informed him.

"Yes, sir, it just won't be the same without all your jolly japes to keep our spirits up," George said. "Remember that time you pretended you wanted me to shoot you in the foot? 'Come on, what's one toe?' you said. 'I've got nine more!'" He wiped his eyes mirthfully. "Oh, we absolutely howled."

"Yes, I do remember a certain amount of howling," Blackadder said. He dismissed them both and stood up as General Melchett arrived with Darling in tow.

"Ten shun!" Darling barked.

"Ah, Darling," Blackadder said brightly, swinging to face him. "I was hoping you'd be here to see me off."

"Wouldn't miss it for the world," he said through gritted teeth.

"Eager to be going somewhere, Blackadder?" Melchett asked, always a man invested in making sure that people other than him weren't shirking the action.

"Not at all," he said. After all, 'eager' hardly held the same connotation as 'more desperate than the last man in line for the lavatory during the only two-minute interval at a Royal Command Performance of Nine Hours of Running Water Noises'. "I simply assumed that, seeing as Captain Darling is the natural front-runner for the role of General Fotherington's report-writing assistant, either he would be going away to London or I would."

If furious twitches could kill, he would be a very dead man indeed. But Darling knew better than to try to wriggle out of their deal. "Yes, well, um, may the best man win," he said with a rather queasy smile.

"That's very generous, Darling, I'd have thought you'd have been wishing for you to win it," Blackadder said.

"Mm, yes, it was a very tough decision," Melchett said. "Although, Darling, your version did contain some frankly bone-headed mistakes - like claiming the Germans saw through our genius plan to conceal our night-time advances by holding them under cover of broad daylight. And as for the condition of the paper... it looks like you wrote it at the bottom of a ditch full of water while people were shooting at you! It's really not like you at all, Darling."

"Yes, I... really don't know what I was thinking." He swayed with indecision before his obsessively finicky nature clearly overruled even self-preservation. "Actually, sir," he blurted, "I must confess-"

"That you were distracted by that letter from your beloved back home," Blackadder interjected quickly. "Tell me, what was that name again... it began with B, didn't it?"

"Doris!" Darling insisted frantically. "It was Doris." He folded like the staff of a greetings card factory who'd just been told their least productive members would be laid off at Christmas.

"Ah, yes, well, perfectly natural that a young man's fancy should turn to fancying when he's got a girl back home," Melchett said nostalgically. "And frankly I'm glad to hear it! I always thought you were a bit of a nancy myself, but I suppose even a wet milksop like you does well in these times of action." He gave Darling a companionable thump on the shoulder that made him stagger. "Everybody loves a man in uniform, eh, Darling?"

"Yes, don't they, Darling?" Blackadder said, arching his eyebrows. Darling seethed.

"Quite right," Melchett harrumphed into his moustache. "Now, Blackadder, your report was truly excellent - the part about insufficient supplies of napkins and the unacceptable lumpiness of the staff officers' pillows was particularly insightful."

"Well, one learns these things by being at the sharp end," he said modestly.

"Yes, General Fotherington was most impressed - it seems we were wrong about you front-line johnnies all along."

"Oh?" He puffed his chest expectantly, while Darling turned a rather fetching shade of green.

"Yes, it turns out you are perfectly capable of reporting on the progress of the war effort from where you are. Personally I'd have thought you'd need a nice big office far away from all the whizzbangs, a healthy supply of good food and fine wine, and perhaps an attractive young lady to act as your secretary - but you, Blackadder, have proved me wrong. General Fotherington has gone back to England, and he'll expect written reports from you on a monthly basis."

"From the front lines," Blackadder checked.

"Yes."

"And not from an office in London."

"No." Melchett shook his head.

"Would you excuse me a moment, please, General?" He stepped out into the trenches, walked a short distance away, shouted, "Aaargh!" very loudly, and then turned around and went back in.

"Excellent," said Melchett, unfazed by the interruption in their dialogue. "Anyway, I thought I'd bring you the good news in person - wouldn't want the prospect of being sent away from the thick of the action keeping you up at night."

"No," he said with fatalistic calm.

"Then I'll let you get back to it." He leaned in confidentially. "Though if I were you, I'd do something about those men screaming in the trenches - bad for morale," he said.

"Yes, sir, I'll tell them to try to get shot more quietly," Blackadder said wearily.

"That's the spirit!" Melchett clapped him on the shoulder with cheerful violence and departed, but Darling hung around to gloat.

"So it seems you won't be leaving us after all, eh, Blackadder?" he said, smiling smugly.

"Yes, no thanks to your efforts." He glowered. "You were about as much use as a lead parachute on a double-decker bus full of elephants."

"I did exactly as you asked!" Darling insisted. "I can hardly be blamed for being too successful."

"No, but you can be blamed for being a git," he said. "Don't think you don't still owe me. I'd say I had you by the balls, but I fear it might be misinterpreted."

"Well, I'm not taking part in any more of your foolish schemes," Darling said with a petulant scowl. "You made me look like a complete idiot in front of the general."

"Oh, don't sell your own contribution short, Darling, it was hardly that much of an effort on my part." Of course, Darling was practically a genius by the depressing standards of the company he kept; at least he had enough bloody sense to know he didn't want to be here. Blackadder contemplated what could still be rescued of the situation.

"So," he said. "About those perverted sexual favours."

Darling glared at him in outraged indignation. "Absolutely not!" he said. "I would have to be completely desperate and totally lacking in self-respect to even contemplate letting you take advantage of me in such an indecent manner."

There was a pause. He sidled slightly closer. "...What did you have in mind?"