David is the clever one, always has been.
"That new boy, have you met him yet? He's rather clever." And Robert had looked across the hall at the scrawny first-year from Peterhouse and nodded, agreeing.
Everyone agrees now. David is the panel guest par excellence, acerbic and self-loathing in equal measure, always quoted, always admired. He's the thinking woman's crumpet, and if David doesn't believe that, well, Robert has time. He can wait.
Robert used to be the good-looking one, but he's been getting that a bit less now as his hair recedes and 40 edges within view. He's OK with that, mostly. He thinks he was never as good-looking as all that, really, but fair hair and a shy smile are a good way to hide a lot of things.
Even David bought it at first, convinced that Robert was a total ladykiller. He'd demand details of each encounter, managing to sound both envious and chiding at the same time.
"You are being careful, aren't you, Rob?" David scrunched up his face when he was worried, looking a bit like a posh chipmunk. Robert found this endlessly amusing and so spun lie after lie, looking at David with earnest eyes and biting his lip not to laugh.
The truth was rather different. Robert was popular, of course, but the posh girls somewhat scared him and the ones from backgrounds more similar to his own were, like him, principally caught up in working hard enough to make sure they never had to go back there. The posh boys didn't scare him -- if they had, he'd never have left Lincolnshire -- but neither were they as louche as the novels made out. Robert had come to Cambridge looking forward to snogs behind the chapel, and had felt bitterly cheated that the nation's public schools were no longer turning out poofters in such rampant supply. Another thing to blame on Martin Wiener, he supposed.
Instead, Robert spent more and more time in David's rooms, writing rude jokes and coming up with rubbish schemes to impress girls, and eventually David must have done the sums and realized there simply wasn't time for Robert to be the Don Juan of Robinson College.
"You lying bastard!" David said suddenly, breaking into what Robert had thought was a rather convincing tale of a goat and a girl from Queens.
Robert tried to look abject, but it was no use. David began hurling sofa cushions at him and Robert collapsed on the floor with laughter.
"You total shit! I can't believe you!" David's face flushed red. He kicked at Robert half-heartedly where he lay on the floor.
Robert grabbed at David's leg and pulled him off the sofa and into a tangle of arms and legs and elbows and knees .
"What the ... you utter ... I hate you, you know that, right? ... Rob, seriously ... OK, ow!" David began kicking him in the shins, but Robert had him pinned, no contest. He lifted off with his arms, balancing his upper body with one hand on either side of David and wrapping his legs around him to keep him in place.
Robert smirked and enjoyed the view. The flush now extended down to David's neck, and his lips were chapped and red where he was nervously biting them. He had started to sweat slightly and Robert was just about to make a joke when David blushed even harder and tried to move his eyes away from Robert's gaze.
"Oh hell," said David, his tone decidedly more miserable than it had been just a few seconds before.
Robert looked at him, puzzled. Then he shifted to avoid a leg cramp and ... oh.
Later, Robert would tell himself (and Colly, and Abi, and much later, a patently disbelieving Rob Brydon) that he could already foresee the glittering career and great friendship he and David had in front of him and that he wisely realized that none of that was worth risking for a quick grope on a rainy afternoon.
In fact, what he really thought, was, "Oh, yes, please."
He let himself fall back down on top of David's warm chest, grabbing at his shirt to avoid bumping noses. He had just started to open his mouth, ready to claim and be claimed, when David gave a startled gasp and pushed at him with his hands.
Robert allowed himself to be pushed away. David rolled out from under him and scrambled back to sit on the sofa again. He ran his hands through his hair, loudly mumbling "Oh Christ, oh Christ."
Robert stood up, uncertain what to do next. David stopped babbling and looked up at him, eyes pleading. Robert had not made it from Woodhall Spa to Cambridge by being slow on the uptake, so he nodded, said "right" and beat a hasty exit.
The next day, at Footlights, David acted as though nothing odd had happened. Robert supposed it hadn't, really, and shoved back his own complaint and told himself firmly to get over it.
David is the clever one, and Robert is OK with that. When people compare them to Fry and Laurie -- and they do, all the time -- he knows who they've got slotted as Fry the Younger. It's OK. Robert is just as happy to let David do most of the talking most of the time, and smirk in the background.
"We have it all mapped out," David tells people. "In 15 years, Robert will be a big Hollywood star and I'll be puttering about, making documentary films."
Robert rolls his eyes when he hears this, and cuffs David over the head. He is amused by the comparison, but knows he's never had anything in common with a rowing blue from Eton, subsequent comedy legend or not. His father was a coal merchant from Lincolnshire, not a posh Oxford doctor, and if David sometimes forgets that, Robert hasn't.
David is the clever one, but Robert is the determined one. No one hands you anything up north. A-levels and TV sketch shows don't just fall into your lap -- you have to work for them.
So it is Robert who casts his eye over each new Footlights recruit, considering and rejecting potential partners. It is Robert who, finally finding what he wants, goes up to David and says, "we should work together." It is Robert who says "yes" to projects when David dithers, and drags David to parties to meet the right people and generally tells him to shut it anytime he starts talking about how all his work is crap. If David needs a push, Robert will push him.
When they're writing, Robert turns up every day at David's flat and sits side-by-side in his bedroom, watching David type away at the computer. He looks over at David's bed and thinks it's proof of how successfully he's squelched the odd longing that David doesn't even think it's odd that they do their best work here.
He has told himself for years not to be silly. But Robert's not stupid, either. And as he watches David make a hash of his personal life time after time, it occurs to him that maybe he got it wrong all those years ago. That maybe it wasn't panic or disgust, but David's chronic inability to say "yes" to anything he truly wants.
David is the clever one, but Robert is the determined one. One of these days, maybe soon, Robert thinks, he'll try again. If David needs a push, Robert will push him. Until then, Robert has time. He can wait.