Title: Spring Cleaning
Length: ~4,700 words
Status: Complete
Rating: PG-13
Warnings: None
Summary: Janek deals with one of his ghosts. Alex finally admits he has a ghost of his own.
Author's Notes: Companion piece to Clarity of Mind and Arietta. Won't make sense if you haven't read both.

It'd been there since the very first day. The one with the Arietta, he'd said, feeling insecure, afraid he was phrasing it wrong or that it might happen to be considered Beethoven's worst piece. But Alex had widened his eyes, looking impressed, and informed him casually that it was "the best sonata ever written". Janek remembered the exact words, the exact feeling.

Then it had come up again on their first date, then again when they were drunk and Janek couldn't really explain why he liked it, so Alex explained it for him, got it exactly right, and it was the same feeling you get when someone puts into words something you'd always noticed only vaguely, such as how cake mix tastes better than actual cake or how pot-pourri is basically just stuff that fell from trees.

Then the most important event: the lecture, Alex panicking while preparing it, lying on the floor surrounded by loose sheets of staff paper, and Janek realising he couldn't hate Alex anymore, didn't want to, all he wanted was to kiss him and tell him it was going to be all right. Then the lecture itself, Alex playing bits of it and talking about beauty in sorrow, grace in defeat, his smile faltering as he bowed half-heartedly, the audience on its feet.

A couple of hours after that, Janek told Alex he loved him, which was probably the hardest thing he'd ever done in his life.

There was a part of this whole thing that was annoying: a piece of music he enjoyed had turned into this soundtrack of his love story, and now he had the urge to listen to it when he was alone in some hotel room because of some stupid conference, wondering if he'd ever gather up the nerve to ask Alex to play it for him.

And then there was an even worse part: the one in which Janek thought that, while some couples had a song, he and Alex had the Arietta.

This last part, Janek promised himself he wouldn't tell a priest on his deathbed.

So when Alex said he was finally ready to stop being a wuss and start performing again, Janek simply assumed he wasn't going to have to make the request after all.

Janek stood by the stage door and flinched, startled by the sudden roar that filled the hall when Alex finished playing Rachmaninoff's Prelude no. 23. It was one of his favourites, this piece, and he'd been engrossed by Alex's insanely thunderous interpretation, leaning against a column, the back of Claudio's head a few centimetres below his line of sight. It'd been the fifth of an oddly eclectic choice of encores, which was just one more thing about this event that Janek wasn't going to try to understand.

The main repertoire consisted solely of Liszt. Janek had been surprised, but he didn't ask. Alex explained anyway, 'No one can be just a specialist'. It was extremely odd to see Alex acting defensive, especially concerning his choice of repertoire, and especially towards him of all people. But it was also enough to make him understand that this was about getting past the Return to the Stage drama quickly by taking the safe route.

'Wait for me backstage.' There was a very comfortable-looking seat waiting for him right next to Lydia in the guest box, but Janek didn't ask, he just stood against that stupid column for the duration of the concert, trying to forget that he didn't belong there and that Claudio didn't really like him.

Alex walked toward them with a tired but brilliant smile on his face. "Ok, I'm done," he said, breathless, and almost tumbled into Claudio's arms. Janek took a few steps back in an attempt to become one with the column while Alex shook hands with people who belonged there. Then there were arms around his neck and sweaty hair under his fingers and a drunken laugh in his ear, and for a second Janek thought none of those other people belonged there.

"Did you like the Rach?" Alex asked, more loudly than necessary.

Janek smiled and leaned down a bit more, hoping a normal tone of voice would be enough for Alex to hear him. "Yes. You could have picked up a hammer and broken the piano like a rock star after that one."

Alex laughed more, let go of him and moved on to the next handshake without so much as a moment of awkwardness, like a proper rock star.

'Two sonatas. I'm thinking the Appassionata and the Waldstein.' Again Janek didn't ask, and again Alex offered his defence. 'I'm not ready', he said, not looking up. Janek was getting tired of this, was starting to think the actual Return to the Stage had yet to happen, and he wouldn't be able to say anything until it was over. 'It's just a piece of music' travelled from his brain to his mouth and died there several times, perhaps because living with Alex had provided him with proof enough that there was no such thing as an "un-tortured genius".

After the concert, Alex was obviously not radiantly happy while he went through the motions of backstage chatter. At home, he clung to Janek as soon as they walked in the door. They stood quietly for a long time, Janek's arms wound loosely across Alex's back. 'Don't ask,' he whispered, but Janek didn't have to.

Alex sulked for a few days, always dragging his feet and sighing as he walked out of his studio.

They sat together at the kitchen table for lunch on a Sunday afternoon, Alex sporting his post-practice face, which Janek could see even through the usual jokes and Alexisms.

"What were you playing?" he asked after a short silence.

"Satie, Saint-Saëns…I like to screw around with French ambient when I'm not inspired for anything else."

"I didn't even know you liked French ambient."

"It's my guilty pleasure, what can I say…"

Janek furrowed his brow. He kind of liked Satie. "Is it bad music, though?"

"No, not at all."

"Then why is it a guilty pleasure?"

Alex snorted. "Because you like to annoy me by never letting me be irrational."

"Non-sequitur," he said, and smirked when Alex slapped him with the back of his hand, laughing.

Janek watched him for a second before continuing in an absent tone. "Ravel reminds me of nephrology."

"Please elaborate."

"You know how some songs, or some music or other, become the soundtrack of a certain period of your life? Daniel was going through a Ravel phase when I was being tortured by nephrology at school. So I always remember that specific time when I hear that goddamned Bolero, for instance."

"Wow. Daniel has crappy taste. I feel your pain."

With a sidelong glance at Alex, Janek cleared his throat. "This must happen to you, too. I mean, some music that…immediately takes you back to a certain period of your life, good or bad, doesn't matter."

"Well, yes. When we were fighting all the time, I was working on Mahler's 6th with the orchestra, so that's ruined." He mock-glared at Janek and picked up his glass, shaking his head. "But other than that…I don't know. Don't think so, at least not for any bad times."

"It isn't necessarily ruined, though, is it? If you work on Mahler's 6th in different circumstances, then you can replace the bad association with a good one, I would imagine."

"Huh…maybe."

Alex went silent, looked ahead pensively, worrying his bottom lip before perking up suddenly. "Well, your case is much worse. You have bad memories associated to horrible music, so we must find a way to erase that Bolero from your brain."

Janek smiled.

When Janek got home from the lab a few days later, Alex stared at him with a terribly amused smile on his face. Janek instantly noticed something different in his body language, something...lighter.

"You are unbelievable, you know that?"

"Did I leave a wet towel on the bed again?"

Alex laughed and stood on his tiptoes to kiss him. "Good associations, eh? Sly…"

"What are you talking about?" Janek smiled indulgently, a certain feeling of anticipation threatening to throw him off.

Alex let his hands slide from Janek's neck to his chest. "I'm sorry," he said softly. "I should have thought of this before. It just never occurred to me that it could be important to you."

"If this is what I think it is, then you have no reason to apologise. You don't owe me anything."

"All right. I owe it to myself, then." He looked up, stared at Janek for a moment, then grinned mischievously. "It's not like you're ever going to admit you want me to play it for you anyway."

Alex took a few steps back, looking smug, but Janek held on to his wrist. "You're right," he said, looking very serious. "I'm never going to admit it. Ever."

Then he found himself with Alex practically hanging from his neck, laughing hard as he pulled him close and began a string of declarations of undying love that ended predictably with something about how that whole conversation had turned him on.

Janek never had idols, role models, any sort of hero worship for the great names in his field. But now he was standing there, before those very names, the centre of a conversation that involved a great accomplishment – his accomplishment. There were no profuse demonstrations of admiration for his work; they were merely discussing it, but that signified implicit acceptance into the exclusive circle of people who were occasionally granted a spot at the centre of these conversations. The pride he felt was tenuous, overridden by a serene sense of belonging. In the back of his mind, Alex's mocking voice told him he was a 'closeted alpha male', and perhaps Alex was right. Whatever game Janek played, he played to win. Or maybe the truth was that Janek never had any choice but to be his own hero.

A few minutes before that, Janek had squinted from the podium during the Q&A, thought he was seeing things, but soon realized he'd been just a few metres from a spot that allowed him to recognize the figure beyond any doubt. He was there, standing at the back of the room, alternating between glancing around at the dispersing audience and looking down at his feet. The effect it had on Janek was close to null, only a fleeting inward shrug before his attention was drawn back to the people around him.

But as the group headed for the door, Janek couldn't bring himself to ignore the man. He apologized and walked to stand under the cloud of awkwardness that was waiting for him, leaning against a wall, conspicuously out of place. Was he supposed to shake his hand? Say hello? Skip the nonsense and simply ask what he wanted?

"It's good to see you again. Such a long time…" It was the same disarming smile, the same warm, kind eyes that Janek could never believe were insincere, something that had always caused a tension of contradiction in his memory of all the lies.

Maybe, he thought, maybe there were still things to say after all. But for the time being, all he could do was nod as jumbled emotions were finally triggered in his mind.

"Janek...I've…I've been waiting for a chance to…" He paused, took a deep breath, pursed his lips. Janek watched, silent and confused as to why he wanted to smile.

"If I try to say anything now, I'm just going to ramble, so…can we talk?"

Janek gave up trying to understand his own reaction to this when his voice came out soft, almost apologetic. "Not today."

"Tomorrow then?"

Staring at the ground, he went over the program for the next day, imagined himself walking surreptitiously out of the auditorium, skipping a couple of talks he wasn't really interested in.

He nodded, caught a look from a member of his group, and was already walking away when he answered, "Three o'clock. Café across the street."

Despite the lack of view, it was a nice room, comfortable bed, big plasma TV that he had no intention of turning on, but that for some strange reason tied the decoration together nicely. The food left something to be desired, so he'd wandered around looking for a decent trattoria, ordered an antipasto, decided what he really wanted was a milkshake and some fries, walked about half an hour until he found the nearest McDonald's. He tried not to think of it as comfort food, because who goes to McDonald's for comfort food and why did he need comfort food anyway...Except Piero's face kept flashing in his head, and it was hard to deny the dread was weighing him down.

Later, stretched out on the bed diagonally, he answered Alex's questions about the talk concisely, but at one point he couldn't refrain from mentioning how he'd emerged triumphant after the merciless grilling they'd put him through during the Q&A.

Alex practically moaned. "That must have been the sexiest event in the history of neuroscience."

"It probably was," he murmured.

"Oh, Janek…I need to do evil things to you as soon as possible. Come home…"

Janek let out a shaky sigh, mentally calculating approximately forty-eight hours until he could leave Rome, seriously reconsidering his plan to spend a day in London with Daniel.

"You already are. So tell me, how was your day?"

"Oh, you know…ebony and ivory live together in perfect harmony, etc. Worst song ever, by the way."

"How many hours?"

"Five, then a break for cold pizza, then two hours. Then I couldn't feel my arms anymore."

"And?"

"It's coming along…It's never going to come out the way it sounds in my head, but…we do what we can, right? It's…it's just that I never played anything that made me feel insecure," he sighed.

"I remember someone once told me you had to put yourself out there or some such platitude."

"Oh, fuck you," Alex replied through a laugh.

"It's just a piece of music, Alex." He took a deep breath, surprised he'd said it without giving it a second thought.

"I know, I know, of course I'm going to play it. I'm just going to be a drama queen about it until the concert. I hope you're prepared."

Janek went quiet, his brow furrowing as he thought back to his reflections of earlier that day. "Is he your hero?"

"Who, Beethoven?"

"Yes."

"Hmm, no, I wouldn't say that. Some of the things he wrote sound superhuman to me, but he was just a person…Well, a person with no control over his emotions and fantastic talent, which is kind of a perfect combination in a composer, but still…just a person."

"You and I," Janek started, smiling broadly to himself. "We work because we're both great. Great with a capital G."

"Oh my god, Janek, that is so unfair. You should have saved that ego trip for when you got home so we could have mind-blowing ego-trip sex."

"Well, I'm going to be insufferable for a while, so there'll definitely be ego-trip sex."

"Say it again." Alex's voice was raspy, his brilliant smile clearly audible. Janek sighed quietly. "Tell me how great you are."

"I'm a fucking genius is what I am."

"Oh, god…I'd propose phone sex right now if my hands weren't about to fall off."

Janek snorted. There was a short silence. As usual, while Janek considered saying it, Alex said it. "I love you, you know that?"

Janek closed his eyes, pictured Alex's face, and said it back, low and soft. "Of course I know that."

It was exactly three o'clock when Janek crossed the street and saw Piero standing by the door to the coffee shop, hands in his pockets, seeming as awkward as Janek had expected this meeting would be. He stopped, took the time to look at Piero and examine him unceremoniously. He had always looked younger than he was, and it was still the case now, even though his hair was almost completely grey.

"You still look like a boy."

Janek stiffened, his eyes fixed on Piero's face. "What?"

Piero shook his head. "Nothing," he said, but there was still a smile in his eyes, and Janek started to regret having agreed to this.

"Let's sit inside," he said, and walked in without looking back.

The waiter came, took their orders, and they were left in the company of an oppressive silence.

It was out of sheer impatience that Janek asked, "How've you been?"

"Good. You?"

Janek nodded. He let his hands flop on the table tiredly, and sighed. "What did you want to talk about?"

Piero mirrored him almost perfectly, only his sigh was a bit deeper and his eyes rested a bit longer on the table as he hesitated. With a deep breath, he finally started.

"I know this won't mean anything to you, but watching your talk yesterday…I was so proud. I never doubted you could do this."

Janek leaned his chin on his hand, looked out at the street, wondered if anything could mean anything coming from Piero. It felt like trying to piece together a puzzle, this conversation, like going back to not knowing where he stood after years of certainty.

Two boys passed by on Vespas, no helmet on, laughing, possibly headed for statistic-land, where Janek worked at the check-in counter. How strange…

"I did," he replied, turning to look at Piero. "Every now and then."

"I know." Piero nodded, cast his eyes down as if searching for the memory. "But…remember the anatomy atlas? We used to…"

Janek knew what Piero was going to say, and why he thought better of it. What they used to do was lie together in bed, and Janek would always wind himself around Piero, head on his chest, being held close while Piero stroked his hair with one hand and struggled to hold the book open with the other.

The image confused him, left him unsure as to why it had to necessarily be a bad memory.

"I used to quiz you, and you'd get every single answer right…I told you many times you could be anything you wanted, remember?"

He smiled. "I remember".

Piero looked away, cleared his throat, spoke timidly. "It wasn't just bad, was it?"

All their memories seemed to be laid down on the table, spread among the plates and glasses. Janek thought they were taking turns looking down and searching for the redeeming ones, in a way wanting the same thing.

"No." He shook his head absently before looking up at Piero. "You were never unkind. You just lied," he added matter-of-factly.

"I wasn't really…" Piero stopped, rubbed his forehead, let out a quick, nervous laugh. "I'm not sure there's any point in saying this, since you have no reason to believe me, but…it just took longer than I thought. Anyway, it was wrong of me to get you involved in that. I should have known better. I'm sorry."

"You already apologized and I already forgave you. What you want here is to forgive yourself." He picked up his glass, smiled knowingly when Piero nodded with a sigh. He had yet to meet a person who wasn't easy to read, he thought. But his self-congratulatory moment ended when he realized how easy it was to let go of any remnants of resentment, right there, looking at Piero and simply concluding that believing him wasn't important anymore.

"I'll help you, then," he continued. "I'd spent four years practically mute. I had a close brush with depression a few months before I moved here, and…who knows what would have happened if someone, anyone, hadn't come into my life then. I mean, it could have been better, it could have been worse, but the fact is that it was you, so in a way I was lucky. That's all there is to it, really. It doesn't matter what I meant to you, so…no hard feelings in any case."

"Well, if it doesn't matter, then I might as well tell you that I loved you very much. I still do, in a way. I remarried, and I'm happy, but you…you're always going to be a precious memory. And it was painful not knowing how you were doing, if you were happier…I started looking up your name on the internet as soon as I learned how to use it."

Janek snorted. "Really…"

"Yes. I read some of your articles, but, you know…I guess it's like they say, orthopedists are barely doctors."

Alex's face popped into his mind instantly. "Same way percussionists are barely musicians." Janek was amused when Piero laughed, mostly at the thought that the difference between Alex and himself was that Alex annoyed people because he had the habit of giving credit where it was due.

Feeling that pointless embarrassment he wasn't sure would ever go away, he gazed out the window again, his face heating up the way it always did when he quoted Alex before he could stop himself.

Piero was examining him silently, leaning his arms on the table, the tension gone from his posture. "Also, I don't cheat on my wife anymore."

This time Janek laughed with him, the light-hearted exchange suddenly reminding him clearly of why Piero had made him happy in spite of everything.

Another short silence followed, and Janek watched as that same old smile formed on Piero's face, warm, disarming, serene as he looked Janek straight in the eye. "I can only hope you believe me."

When he glanced down at the table, all the scattered pieces were gone. He nodded, returning the smile. "I do."

Alex spent his days in his studio for the next three more months, alternating between working on the sonata and writing choppy preludes and scherzos for various instruments. At one point he put them all together and found he had an eerie, haunting theme for bassoon and piano. Claudio had to remind him that he'd finally fulfilled his dream, to which Alex replied with an absent oh yeah, and Janek got a little worried about him.

He was surprised that Alex let him lie on the sofa whenever he wanted and listen in on his practice sessions. The promised melodrama never happened; instead, Alex became increasingly quiet, and Janek could almost hear the notes playing in Alex's head when he stared into the void while sitting at a restaurant table surrounded by noisy conversation.

Finally one evening, Alex looked up as Janek walked into the kitchen and said, "I think it's ready."

Janek had thought it'd always been ready, but when Alex played it that night from beginning to end, he understood. It was all there, everything Alex had always talked about with so much awe, and that now Janek knew he himself had never really grasped.

He sat there in silence until Alex smiled and whispered, "Say something."

"It's ready," he whispered back.

Alex sat beside him, let out a shaky breath, and said evenly, "I'll set a date, then."

Of course Janek was not allowed to sit in the guest box with everyone else. Again he had to stand against the column by the stage door with Claudio's head just below his line of sight, although this time he really didn't care and didn't even notice the other people around him.

Alex had been quiet throughout the day, while Janek had been barely able to contain his nervousness. It was partly about Alex, but mostly it was about himself and the catastrophic scenario that kept flashing through his mind, wherein he started crying loud enough for Claudio to turn around and glare at him. Janek knewthis was never going to happen, but he'd been there through the whole process, he'd let that thing grow into a monster in his head, and now it was catching up with him.

When the time came to leave for the concert hall, Alex perked up a bit, thanks to the obligatory controversy over his refusal to wear a bowtie. Lydia and Claudio couldn't refrain from mentioning it, which just made Alex gaze lovingly at his designer suit and tell them he wouldn't be caught dead with a bow sticking out from under his chin.

In the dressing room, things seemed to calm down when Alex lay with his head on Janek's lap and stared at the wall, mentally going over the whole piece. When he got up, Janek recognised him again, all confidence and raw energy as he kissed him and told him to relax, everything was fine. Janek ignored the part where Alex had been the one who'd reassured him, and decided that, yes, everything was fine.

It all seemed like much ado about nothing once the music started. Alex's trademark was his confidence, the way every one of his performances flowed easily from his flawless technique, something that even his staunch critics never denied. It was there that night, same as always, and Janek could simply listen, the same way he knew Alex was simply playing.

It was even more beautiful now that it was no longer the ghost that had lived in Alex's mind for so many years.

Alex winked at him before going back out for the last encore of the night. When he started playing the Rachmaninoff prelude, Janek laughed – loud enough for Claudio to turn around and roll his eyes at him.

Janek never used endearments, never made romantic declarations. He thought them, though, but he simply didn't know how to do it without feeling ridiculous. Alex did it all the time, of course, and the one thing Janek never tried was to pretend that he didn't love hearing it. If they were alone and Alex was close enough, Janek would put his arms around him, kiss him, nuzzle his face, and if not, he would respond with a smile, not caring if he was gazing dreamily at Alex.

There were some things Janek could do, like say Alex's name during sex, whispered in his ear in a sigh, the goose bumps rising under his hand giving him a painful wish to say more. And he could also place his hands on either side of Alex's face and say things like you're crazy, wanting to say you're wonderful, grateful because Alex always understood, laughed, and responded with I love you too.

Then came the night when he was taken over by the sight of Alex sweaty and flushed under him, bright blue eyes staring up before they fluttered closed when Janek moved slowly. It just spilled out, you're so beautiful, and then his heart raced because there was no pretending it had been a casual remark driven by arousal, and sex for them was never the time for solemn declarations. He was reminded that he really didn't know how to do this, but Alex smiled, dazed, almost incredulous, freezing the moment with eyes fixed on him, a hand on his cheek, and then a slow kiss.

It was only later, after they had showered and dressed, that Alex pulled him by the hand and gave him that same disconcerting look. Thank you, he said, and stood there while Janek nodded briefly, looked away for a moment and then sagged, shaking his head in a self-deprecating gesture before returning the hug and resting his chin on the top of Alex's head.

Maybe he was learning.

"If you laugh, I will flush one of your fishies down the toilet."

Janek glanced at the tank, asked with the straightest face. "Which one?"

Alex narrowed his eyes. "The crazy yellow one."

"Okay, then I won't laugh."

"You know that thing where couples have, erm, a song?"

Janek tried, because he really liked that crazy yellow fish, but he couldn't help himself.

The End.