Garak didn’t notice, at first.
There had been flowing kanar and a fierce debate with Julian about whether or not Iloja of Prim’s poetry was erotic, which meant fingers brushing against each other and knees meeting under the table, and Garak’s body responded to all of it.
When the drinks and discussion and brief, charged touches turned into ferocious kisses and hands exploring his torso, there were too many physical sensations to track, and each one threatened to overwhelm him. If a tremor slipped in that was not pleasant, it was crowded out by the others.
It was only when their bodies were pressed against each other in earnest, his back to the wall as Julian’s nails raked across his skin, that he knew the shiver for what it was.
Sternly telling himself to get over it had no effect, even when the command echoed with Tain’s voice. If anything, it got worse.
“Garak?” Julian’s voice was thick, and he swallowed heavily. “Are you alright?”
Garak did not meet Julian’s gaze, instead focusing his eyes on the rise and fall of Julian’s unadorned chest.
“Never better, my dear.” He could feel the shudder begin in the cold pit of his stomach before climbing his spine.
Why didn’t his body understand? There was no danger, nothing to be feared, but still he tasted bitter bile at the back of his mouth. The jagged edge to his breath had less to do with the beautiful body in front of him and more to do with the gradual tightening of his throat.
He wanted this, didn’t he?
“Are you sure?” Julian’s lust was being replaced by concern, and he pulled away, increasing the space between them.
Garak felt desperately like he was losing control of the situation, and the waves of sick shame crashing over his head wouldn’t listen to his demand that they stop.
“Yes,” he lied, and surged forward, because this ridiculous weakness couldn’t be allowed to get in the way of Julian’s pleasure, the promise of the night.
“Do you-” This was mumbled into Garak’s mouth, and he intercepted it, biting heavily into Julian’s lower lip.
The movements became automatic, Garak’s brain focused inward. The body is the tool of the disciplined mind. A disciplined mind doesn’t lose control.
Stop losing control!
“Garak.” Suddenly Julian was too much, too hot, too close, and Garak tore away, trying to force breath through his constricted airway.
Garak’s hip caught on the edge of a table and he stumbled to his knees, fragmented, unable to steady himself with traitorous, trembling hands.
“Garak, I think you’re having a panic attack.” This was no longer Julian, all affectionate enthusiasm and unrestrained heat. It was Dr. Bashir, calm and firm and ready to solve the problem.
“Preposterous,” Garak hissed.
The hands kept shaking, how dare they, how dare his body betray him like this, and he clenched them shut and dug his nails in, but it didn’t stop, even when he scratched into his forearm and what would it take, would he have to draw blood to get himself back in control-
Warm, insistent fingers wrapped around his own, gently tugging them.
“You can squeeze my hands, Garak. As hard as you need to.”
As if that would solve anything. Garak obliged, palm-to-palm, wrapping fingers around Julian’s knuckles and gripping as if that would make the muscles seize and stop.
“Good, that’s very good.”
Two parts of Garak briefly went to war with each other, one which writhed and thought stop condescending to me I’m not an infant, and the other of which purred and wished for more praise.
Both were drowned out by the next violent shudder that wracked Garak’s body. Without the steadying of Julian’s hands, he would have fallen over.
A disciplined mind wouldn’t need a human, this is pathetic, Elim, you’re pathetic-
“You’re doing very well,” Julian said soothingly. “With your permission, I’d like to show you a Vulcan breathing technique. Can you count to ten with me?”
Of all the Federation nonsense-
He’s seeing you at your weakest-
Weak and pathetic-
“Three, that’s right…”
Why did this happen-
“Four, keep breathing…”
He won’t want to touch you again after this-
He’s touching you now. His hands are warm.
He hasn’t left.
But he will.
“Eight, almost there…”
“Nine, nice deep breaths…”
Garak’s voice was a hoarse whisper, but he kept his mouth moving with the slow count.
“Ten… Now back down to one. Nine…”
The carpet scratched, Garak observed. He had never spent enough time on the floor to notice, but whatever material was used was as itchy as Inkarian wool.
It was in their second climb to ten that he realized his breathing had slowed.
When they reached one for the third time, Garak was tired to his bones. The shiver had subsided, leaving him wretchedly back in his own body, hunched on the floor and slick with cold sweat.
He pulled his hands back from Julian, ashamed. Julian let him go.
“Do you want to keep counting?” Julian asked gently.
The best thing to do would be to shout and push him away, get him out of the room before he could take advantage of Garak’s weakness.
In a moment, when Garak felt strong enough.
“We can be silent if that’s what you want,” Julian said, misreading Garak’s lack of response. “If you think you can sit, I can bring you something to drink.”
For a single strange moment, Garak wondered if he’d bring back the kanar. That would help, if he could drink enough of it to numb his memory of the whole evening, but instead Julian returned from the replicator with a steaming mug and a bowl of broth.
“A blend of Jestral and valerian root tea, and chicken soup,” he identified, laying them beside Garak. “I’m afraid I don’t know any Cardassian comfort foods.”
Cardassian food was comforting to Garak only on the basis of its familiarity and its connection to home. As a culture, ‘comfort’ was not one of their culinary values.
The soup was a mystery, but Garak’s throat felt dry and sore, so he decided to risk the tea.
“Small sips,” Julian advised.
“I have been drinking tea without incident since I was a child,” Garak muttered. He had intended to snap, but it seemed his voice was not yet sufficiently recovered to be biting.
Julian only smiled in response.
“I’m glad to hear it.”
Although Garak had no intention of admitting it, the tea was soothing, a welcome relief for his weariness.
This, he knew, was the calm before the storm. Next to come would be the doctor telling him he was ridiculous to behave this way and to go find someone else to eat lunch with. Garak would grieve the loss, but he wouldn’t blame Julian.
The kindest thing Julian could do, Garak reflected, would be to leave now without saying anything and never bring it up again. But knowing him, that was too much to hope for.
“Have you ever had a panic attack like that before?”
This was where it would begin. A barrage of questions with unacceptable answers. Garak sipped from the cup of tea and tried to focus on those sensations, the burning on his tongue, the press against his lip, the handle between his fingers.
“I know you don’t want to talk about it,” Julian said, apparently not listening to himself. “But if this has never happened before, it’s medically concerning.”
Garak could envision the research paper now. Neuromuscular Failure in Emotionally Compromised Cardassians.
“There is no cause for medical concern, Doctor.”
“Good. That’s… good.” Ah, the awkwardness of Julian. With the urgency passed, perfectly professional Dr. Bashir was being put away until next required.
If only there was something physically wrong. To a Cardassian, that would have been more acceptable.
Garak sniffed the soup. It smelled palatable enough. Perhaps he would try it after Julian left. For now, the tea would have to suffice.
“Do they usually happen under these circumstances?”
Impossible to say, since the circumstances were most unusual. Garak had never slept with Julian before, subsequently he had no idea how his body typically reacted to the phenomenon.
The physical experience was similar to his episodes of claustrophobia, but those were always preceded by a clear trigger. He couldn’t say what had started this. He wasn’t even sure when it began.
Julian persisted, despite the lack of answers to his questions.
“Do you think it’s likely to happen the next time we try?”
“Next time?” Garak repeated, not quite sure he’d understood correctly.
“Well, yes. Unless you don’t want to,” Julian hastened to add.
It wasn’t Garak’s want that was the problem. It was Julian’s. Julian was supposed to hate him for this.
“I don’t know.” Garak only ever said that when he was telling the truth. It was too dull for a lie.
Julian didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands anymore, and tugged at his uniform.
“Was it something to do with me? Because I’m a human, or a man? Or did I do something wrong?”
It struck Garak that Julian truly was alien. It was easy to forget at times, even with the physical differences, that Julian’s entire conception of the world was fundamentally foreign.
He should have been observing Garak’s weaknesses and figuring out how to use them to his own advantage. He should have been disgusted by Garak’s lapse.
He should not be wondering if it were his own fault.
Garak would be able to neatly avoid the discussion if he let the doctor continue to believe that. His (newly acquired) conscience rebelled at the idea.
“No. It has nothing to do with you.” Garak loathed telling the truth, but he persevered, determined to do the one good thing for Julian that he could.
“Have you had a panic attack triggered by intimacy before?”
Garak sighed heavily and closed his eyes. That was an inexcusable move, opening oneself up to a surprise attack, but at this moment even getting stabbed would have been a nice change of pace from Julian’s offensively blatant questions.
Still, it was his own fault, for not stopping the line of inquiry.
If he stopped it now, would Julian blame himself? That was the tricky thing about Julian. For all that he had an inflated professional ego, and an unfortunately warranted belief in his own attractiveness, he had the capacity to hold deep wells of self-loathing. Garak couldn’t be responsible for adding to that.
“This is not a usual situation for me, Doctor.” How to begin to express what he knew could not be understood? “In my previous line of work, if I allowed someone to get this close to me, it was for a purpose.”
“To get information, you mean?”
That, or it was the most expedient way to get someone vulnerable and defenseless. Garak nodded.
He was aware that Julian, true to traditions of Federation hypocrisy, held conflicting opinions on the subject. In his holosuite spy fantasies, he had sex with all and holographic sundry. In practice, the Federation concept of consent was tangled in ways Garak couldn’t even begin to understand.
For Garak, the matter was simple. His body was a tool in the service of the state. If that meant he had to climb into bed in order to expose a corrupt legate or wheedle an unofficial confession, then he did so without hesitation, ego, or remorse. An intelligence agent had only their sense of professionalism.
None of which explained why he had come so close to shattering. It was nothing that Julian had done. It was Garak’s inexplicable failure.
“Garak, I’m going to ask you a question that you won’t like. You don’t have to answer, but I think it would help explain things. When you were a spy-” Garak opened his eyes to shoot Julian a warning look. “When you were in your ‘previous line of work,’ and you had to have sex with someone, did you ever feel afraid or in pain while it was happening?”
There was no straightforward answer to this. One truth: no, Garak never felt anything, there was nothing to feel, it was his duty and nothing more. Another truth: there was always the fear of failing and being discovered, and a powerful man had no incentive to be kind to the gardener or record clerk or unobtrusive nobody he thought he had seduced.
Nausea bloomed in Garak’s stomach, and he set down the cup of tea. Perhaps it wasn’t compatible with Cardassian digestion? How unlike the doctor not to have checked first.
“I imagine your work didn’t leave you with much leisure time,” Julian said thoughtfully, a nonsense non-sequitur. “It wouldn’t have allowed for friends, or romantic partners.”
Since Julian appeared to be having this conversation with himself, Garak didn’t bother to participate. The answers were obvious enough without his input. Instead, he contemplated the chicken soup. If Julian intended to stay for any length of time, some food would be advisable.
“I have a theory. Can you tell me if I’m totally off the mark?”
A response to this was evidently required. Garak nodded. He had been psychoanalyzed by the doctor before, and it was never pleasant. Either Julian was egregiously mistaken, showing ignorance of Cardassian culture and Garak’s own nature, or he was frighteningly perceptive. Neither was enjoyable.
“Here’s what I think. If your body has usually experienced sex as something unpleasant, painful, or frightening, then that’s what your brain has come to expect from it, regardless of who or where or why. If it thinks you’re about to have that experience, it- well, in humans, it would be activating our sympathetic nervous system. I’m not exactly sure what the Cardassian equivalent is. Basically, it’s preparing your body to be in a situation where you’ll be hurt.”
“You weren’t hurting me,” Garak interrupted, feeling that this one point at least needed to be absolutely clear.
“But your brain didn’t know that I wouldn’t. I think you’ve accidentally trained yourself to experience sex as something dangerous, and your body reacted accordingly. And then the sensations and emotions you experienced as a result- the shaking, your heart rate increasing, if you felt afraid or angry or embarrassed- all of it convinced that part of your brain that it was right, and you were in danger. So it escalated its response. Does any of that sound right to you?”
It sounded maddeningly close to a truth, albeit an inconvenient and painful one. The basic principle was one he had seen in others in his time as an interrogator, an automatic, anticipatory physical response to a stimulus the mind predicted would result in pain.
“It certainly is an interesting theory.” That was as close as Garak could come to admitting that Julian might be right.
When in the employ of the Obsidian Order, he had known how to control his body. There was no choice in the matter; failing a mission would have meant certain death or the wrath of Tain, and not every hurt was significant enough to trigger an implant meant to respond to professional torture.
Now, there was apparently also no choice, but in the opposite direction. He noticed that the doctor had neglected to mention any convenient immediate cure.
“It might be something to talk to a counselor about,” Julian suggested, predictably and uselessly.
“Not for a Cardassian.”
Julian usually took Garak at his word when he issued such pronouncements, but they often masked uncertainty on Garak’s part. What did life look like for an average, everyday Cardassian citizen? He knew what it was to be a spymaster’s bastard, and how characters behaved in books. His experience outside of that was sorely lacking, undercover missions notwithstanding.
Julian took the cue not to press further.
“Do you want to try standing up? I can’t imagine the floor is very comfortable.”
It wasn’t. Garak grudgingly accepted Julian’s proffered arm for support, and drew himself up slowly, trying to avoid a head rush.
He didn’t succeed. The dizziness struck in a flood, and he leaned heavily on Julian before he could get his bearings.
They made their way to the couch, and Garak sank gratefully into its cushions. He could almost imagine himself falling asleep like this (which spoke to how exhausting the experience had been). Julian retrieved the tea and soup left on the floor, and fetched a blanket as well, which was thoughtful but also made Garak feel like a patient with the Levodian flu. At least the doctor would leave soon, allowing Garak to be miserable in peace.
“May I sit here?” Julian gestured next to Garak. “Or is it too close?”
Perhaps he wanted to see if the tea was causing any ill effects. (Funnily enough, Garak’s nausea had subsided.)
Julian’s warmth at his side made Garak prickle with shame, reminding him of exactly what this embarrassment had cost. He cleared his throat and gathered courage.
“Doctor, I must apologize for this unseemly outburst.”
“There’s nothing to apologize for.”
And he had the audacity to call Garak a liar!
“You’ve been very kind, but facts are facts, as you’re so fond of reminding me. My conduct has been unacceptable.”
“I’m not just being nice. I really don’t think you have anything to be sorry for. It isn’t your fault or something you did on purpose. These things happen.”
“As you know from your no doubt extensive experience with exiled intelligence agents.” To Garak, pity felt worse than disgust.
Julian’s jaw tightened.
“As I know from being a person who has had some experiences he would rather forget.”
Did that mean Julian experienced such episodes as well?
He laid a hand on Garak’s knee.
“You aren’t a Vulcan, Garak. You’re allowed have emotional responses to things, even when they’re messy or inconvenient.”
“That doesn’t mean you should be forced to endure them.”
“You didn’t force me to do anything. I stayed because I care about you.” The hand squeezed. “I hope you don’t think that I’m about to vanish just because we won’t be having sex tonight.”
That was, in fact, exactly what Garak thought.
“It does put a damper on the evening,” Garak said.
“We can talk. You and I are very good at that,” Julian reminded him. “Or we can just sit here together. Do Cardassians cuddle?”
Garak hadn’t the least idea.
“You’d have to demonstrate,” he decided.
Julian didn’t need a second invitation. He snuggled up against Garak’s side, nestling his head on Garak’s chest. His warm weight was better than ten blankets.
The proximity should have set something off in Garak, shouldn’t it? The claustrophobia, or whatever term should be used to refer to his new weakness. But it didn’t.
If anything, it felt safe.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Julian informed him, and Garak felt the vibration of sound as Julian spoke. “Even if we don’t ever have sex.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
Julian nudged Garak with his head.
“If that was all I was interested in, I would have asked out someone else. I want to spend time with you, and listen to your terrible opinions about literature and your ridiculous lies about why you know things. I want to argue with you in the replimat until Odo threatens to arrest us for disturbing the peace. I’m here because I love you, panic attacks and all.”
The use of the word ‘love’ might have sent Garak spiraling into another one, if he didn’t recall that some cultures were far looser with the term than others.
Julian did not think he was weak or pathetic. Julian did not think he was broken.
Julian wanted to stay.
Garak readjusted to ensure that Julian was properly draped in the blanket, and closed his eyes.
Together, they breathed.
“Panic attacks take a lot of energy. They’re usually very tiring.” Julian’s voice was soft.
“Are they? I hadn’t noticed.”
Julian nuzzled further into Garak.
“We can sleep together. I mean, literally sleeping. If you want.”
“Are you inviting yourself to spend the night?”
Garak bent his neck forward and kissed Julian’s dark hair, feather light, easily denied if caught.
“‘I offer you myself unguarded, so raise your blade and do not miss’,” he recited into the curls.
Had he forgotten that human hearing was more sensitive than Cardassian, or did he want to be heard?
“Don’t start quoting Iloja at me, or we’ll end up right back where we started.”
Garak smiled in spite of himself, and lifted his chin.
“We can argue about Preloc, if you’d rather.”
“I wouldn’t. Meditations seems too prescient now.”
Garak whole-heartedly agreed. The once far-fetched premise of a war between the Cardassian and Klingon empires had nearly killed them both.
“What would you like to do, then?”
“I’d like to rest. You’re very comfortable, you know.”
Garak tilted his head back, closed his eyes, and listened to Julian’s relaxed, trusting inhale and exhale.
Keep breathing, reminded a voice in his head that sounded like Julian, so Garak did.