Chapter 8: Pizza and the Pact

"Well, Francesca's gonna throw a shit-fit when she hears all the ways we're hoping to desecrating her perfect wedding shower," Damon says. "But with a little effort, I think I can persuade her." He leans back and stretches against the back of his chair, looking utterly relaxed and, as a result, ridiculously cocky. "It'll be worth it to watch little brother try to fight back tears in front of all of his friends," he adds with a sarcastic smirk. "I can just see that honest forehead of his, all crinkly with the effort."

I giggle as I lean back contentedly, wiping the edges of my mouth with my napkin before placing it back in my lap. The tangy taste of homemade marinara sauce is still zinging my taste buds, the aftermath of my perfectly crispy/creamy fried zucchini appetizer. My hunger is staved off enough so I'm not uncomfortable, but if that marinara sauce is any indication, I am going to die a thousand happy deaths when my Cappricciosa Pizza shows up.

"He's not gonna cry, Damon,"

"Maybe he'll just sniffle a little bit," Damon says hopefully.

"10 bucks says he goes for the awkward brotherly side-hug," I wager.

"No way," Damon shakes his head dismissively. "Stefan and I are way past that shit."

"Oooh, so manly," I say dryly, rolling my eyes.

A muffled ding sounds from my purse, my phone's 'text received' sound. I shoot Damon an apologetic look as I reach down to retrieve it.

"Sorry, I better look at this. Could be Jenna lost in the Bronx after taking the wrong subway line." I smirk.

"By all means," he says.

The text is from Jenna, but thankfully she isn't lost.

"What time are you going to be home tonight?"

Hmm. Why is she at home wondering where I am instead of out with Alaric?

"Is everything okay?" Damon asks, and I realize I'm frowning.

"Oh yeah, everything's fine," I say, dashing off a quick response. "I think Jenna's just a little lonely," I confide.

"Late. There's some ice cream in the freezer. ;)"

I press send.

"Hmm. I wonder what that means for our love birds?" Damon says.

I shrug. "Yeah. Who knows? Maybe they're taking it slow."

But there is still a hint of trepidation gnawing away at the back of my mind. Jenna isn't the type who willingly takes it slow. God, I hope she didn't get dumped again. Twice in the same month would be a tragic new low.

I'm distracted from my worry when a lonely piece of prosciutto-and-basil-wrapped boconccini mozzarella sitting on Damon's plate catches my eye, rejected. The olive oil and balsamic drizzle collect sadly around it, looking like a pool of multicolored tears. I feel suddenly and overwhelmingly compelled to put it out of its misery. Purely for selfless reasons, of course.

"Would you like my last bite?" Damon asks, his eyes sparkling with mirth.

A guilty blush creeps over my face. "Only if you weren't going to eat it."

Damon's answer is to grab my fork off the table and stab it through the delectable morsel before handing it to me.

"It's all yours, Signorina."

"Thank you very much," I say with an exaggerated nod, being careful not to touch his fingers when I take the fork from him. I pop the bite into my mouth and close my eyes as the salt of the prosciutto and the richness of the olive oil and the freshness of the basil mix with the creamy softness of the mozzarella, dancing across my tongue. A sound like a cross between a hum and a moan escapes my throat. "God, this is incredible," I say.

When I open my eyes to give Damon a look of gratitude, his expression catches me totally off guard. His lips are parted and I can see color rising in his cheeks. When he sees the confused look on my face he drops his gaze and shifts in his seat.

"Sorry," I say automatically, though I'm not sure why.

He clears his throat and flashes me an easy smile even though his cheeks are still flushed. "Why?" he asks. "It's not a crime to enjoy food. If it was, your entire district would be fenced off and turned into a prison."

I snort a laugh, swallowing my bite. "I just got a very 'Hunger Games' visual."

"Hunger Games. Ha," Damon says dryly.

"You and the puns!" I exclaim, throwing my hands up. "Stefan has the same old-fogey sense of humor. You know, I've never asked your father's age. What was he, like 80 when you guys were growing up or something?"

"Ouch." Damon winces playfully, his eyes bright with mirth.

"Seriously, though," I say, pressing my elbow into the table and resting my chin in my palm. "I told you all about my childhood today, it's only fair that I know a little more about yours. C'mon, spill!" I say, challenging him with a teasing glare. "What was the progenitor of the infamous Salvatore brothers really like? Based on the little Stefan does tell me about him, it seems like the modern-day senior Salvatore is kind of a hard-ass."

Something flickers over his expression, but it's gone before I can decipher it, a look of playful ease taking its place. "No deal. The childhood stuff was therapy time and this is friend time. It's against the rules, remember? Your rules not mine," he says, holding his hands up in mock surrender.

"Well what kind of friend would I be, not knowing anything about you?" I ask.

His eyelashes flutter and sweep down to his hands. He shifts in his seat uncomfortably. A thread of apprehension starts to weave itself into a little ball in my gut.

"Another round, i miei amori?" I jump in surprise as Mama D's voice startles me from trying to make sense of Damon's sudden change in mood. I tear my eyes away from him and arrange my face into a smile as I look up at her.

"Yes, please," I say. "You, Damon?"

He still looks uncomfortable but at least he is making eye contact with me. The corners of his mouth curve upward and my chest unclenches just the slightest bit.

"Yeah I'll have another, gracie, Mama."

"Excellente," she croons, glancing adoringly between us as she clears our appetizer plates. "Your dinner will be out shortly." She turns and heads back to kitchen.

Damon leans back and looks me over, his face soft but unreadable. I wait.

He seems to decide something, inhaling deeply and then letting out a long sigh. "It's odd to be asked questions about myself," he says with a shrug. "I'm trained to avoid answering them. That's why relationships like…this can be challenging." He motions between us.

"Friendships with clients you mean?"

"Yes," he says, and doesn't elaborate. He runs a hand through his hair and leans back in his chair. I wait to see if he'll continue.

"See, as your therapist, I'm supposed to remain detached to some degree. I'm supposed to give you just enough information about myself to gain your trust. So you'll feel comfortable sharing yourself." He gestures in my direction. "But I'm also supposed to keep my distance. Avoid any insinuation of equality or friendship." A tiny smirk tugs at one corner of his mouth. "Which is a little ridiculous in our case since you already know Stefan and I'm sure he's given you the Cliff's Notes, if not the full Shakespearean dramaturgy. I know I'd heard a lot about you before we officially met."

I wait to hear if there is more, but he's silent, holding my gaze. I think of all the places he showed me on our walk here, and suddenly it makes sense.

"It must be hard," I say simply. "I'm sorry."

He looks surprised. "Why are you sorry?" he asks.

"Well, it just seems kind of lonely."

His eyes move over my face, openly scrutinizing me. I watch him, unflinching.

Mama D shows up with our drinks, two classic Natro Azzurro pale ales, and Damon glances up to offer her a grateful smile. She takes away my empty glass, seeing that I am drinking straight from the bottle like Damon. We both take sip.

He puts down his beer and exhales on a deep sigh. "I really should refer you to another therapist," he says.

I feel like I've been slapped in the face.

"What? Why?" I stammer.

He must hear the hurt in my voice because he hurries to qualify his statement.

"No, no, no, Elena. It's not because of anything you said. What I'm saying is that I should. That's what is supposed to happen in these types of situations, that's all."

"Oh," is all I can manage. Just the echo of the possibility of starting all over with someone else makes my chest feel hollow.

Damon rests his arms on the table, leaning his body into them. He is close enough so I can see the way his jaw tenses and flexes, the dusting of stubble darkening his cheeks in the flickering candlelight.

"The thing is, I don't want to Elena. I feel like you are going to respond really well to therapy, and maybe I'm selfish, but I really want to be there to help make it happen. I feel sort of…" he trails off, dipping his head to search for words.

He lifts his head and fixes me with an intense, ice-blue stare. "I feel invested in you," he finishes, but something about the way he is looking at me tells me there is more he isn't telling me.

Our pizzas arrive, but the glorious sight and delicious smell is overshadowed by the swirl of thoughts and emotions churning in my mind from what he is saying. It's one or the other. Friend or therapist. But how can that be true? I understand why romantic relationships aren't a good idea between a therapist and client, because for every honorable guy out there trying to follow the rules and do the right thing like Damon, there is a scumbag who is willing to take advantage of a woman's vulnerable state of mind. But friendship? Am I supposed to skirt around the brother and future brother-in-law of my best friends while we're all thrown together to prepare for their wedding? Is that my only option if I don't want to have to find another therapist that I trust?

I like Damon. He is obviously attractive and I obviously have a little crush on him. And it's fun and harmless to appreciate his obvious attractiveness because I am never going to do anything about it.

But there is something else. I feel drawn to him. He knows what it's like to lose a parent, to lose someone you love in the same way I lost mine. And more than that, I can see that Damon needs something more in his life too. Something that will bring him out of his shell, remind him that the world can be safe again. He needs someone who has been through what he's been through.

He needs me.

Call me crazy. Call me insane or delusional. I almost laugh, thinking about my hallucinations. I sort of already am delusional. But I don't want to give up on him.

I feel invested in him too.

Our pizzas sit untouched and steaming in front of us.

"What are you thinking about?" he asks simply, his voice low and gentle.

I lean forward, resting my arms on the table calmly.

"I'm thinking that the rules are bullshit," I say plainly.

An amused smirk curves his lips as he crosses his arms over his chest. "Oh really?" he asks. His eyes are dancing flames in the candlelight.

"Not generally, per se. But in our case, yes, I do." I feel a grin tugging at my cheeks but I hold it back.

"Enlighten me," he says.

I tuck a loose strand of hair behind my ear and gather my thoughts. "What if we had met prior to my attack at the office?" I say.

I wait for his response but he doesn't speak. His eyes dart between mine, searching for the words I have yet to say.

"If we were already friends, and I had the attack and you knew about it. Or if I had told you about any of the attacks or nightmares I've been having, like I've told Caroline and Stefan? Or better yet, what if this same thing were happening to Caroline? As her friend, as my friend, what would you have done?"

"I would have helped you," he admits. "Or her," he adds.

"Of course you would have," I say. "The same way if I got in a legal bind, I'd go to Stefan. Hell, the same way Caroline has held my life together both in and out of the office." I throw my hands up. "Life is what it is, Damon. If the rules you just told me about therapist and client interaction are true, how can you ever get close to anyone without the fear of their possibly needing advice someday and your having to push them away? What is the point of knowing everything that you know, of having the gift you have, if not to help the people you care about the most?"

Damon's expression doesn't change as he takes in everything I said, his eyes still pointed in my direction but now unfocused. He looks down at his hands, fidgeting with each other in his lap. I don't press him.

"You make a good point," he says, lifting his head, his expression pensive.

I reach for my still steaming pizza and pull up an artichoke-and-Kalamata-olive-laden slice, letting the hot dough scald but not burn my fingers as I hold it up to my mouth.

"If it makes you that uncomfortable to hang out with me in a non-office setting, you are more than welcome to show yourself the door, Signore." I tease, all wide-eyed sobriety. "Just don't even think about taking that pizza with you." I motion to his delectable-looking sausage-covered Sicilian. "I've got dibs on any food or drink item already sitting on the table." I sink my teeth into my slice, watching him with a playful but challenging look.

I had hoped the humor would lighten the conversation and usher it back into safer territory, but he seems to be actually considering my offer. His eyes sweep down as he takes a distracted swig of his beer, his expression vulnerable yet completely indecipherable.

He smoothes his hands over his napkin in his lap slowly. He doesn't touch his pizza.

I feel a pang of sadness because he is doing it. He is calling my bluff.

I can't help but feel a tinge of annoyance as well. I'm grateful that he will still be my therapist, but since not seeing him outside of his office is going to be impossible, he is only setting us up for a world of awkwardness. The shower might be manageable enough—though the fact that we planned part of it together and will then be ignoring each other seems pretty ridiculous to me. But how are we going to navigate the wedding, where we are the one and only members of the bride and groom's respective wedding parties? I sigh, feeling tired just thinking about it.

He takes a deep breath, but he doesn't stand like I expect him to.

"This goes against everything that's been ingrained in me to do," he says slowly, still looking down at his lap. When he looks up at me, his expression is simmering with palpable intensity. I feel goose bumps threatening over my arms.

"But the truth is I've never liked how separated I'm supposed to be. How can I be my 'authentic' self with my clients, when I can't tell them anything real about me at all?"

He shakes his head. "You're different, Elena. You're more than a client because you're sort of a part of my family, in this weird indirect way. I can't shake it…" he trails off. I wait.

"But I also think that whatever the circumstances, the fact remains that you need therapy, Elena. And I could help you, I know I could." He breathes a heavy sigh. "I just don't want anything to get in the way of your recovery, least of all me. You deserve a chance at a happy, episode-free life."

He scrubs a hand over the back of his neck. The ball of dread that has been knotting itself inside my belly pulls tighter because I know what is coming next.

"You know, I could hook you up with a really great therapist, Elena. I have somebody in mind that I think—"

"Damon, stop," I interrupt, having heard enough. I wipe my hands on my napkin and lock his eyes in a piercing stare, not giving him the option of looking away. Resolve makes me brave, keeps my voice even, but firm.

"I don't know if you've noticed, but I'm a big girl. If I feel like it's getting in the way, I'll tell you. Don't treat me like I don't know anything about myself just because I don't have a psychology degree and a therapist's certificate. I've been handling this without professional help for the better part of the last decade and with all due respect, nobody wants me to get better more than I do. And I happen to think you are the person that is going to be the most effective at helping me with that," I say, gesturing in his direction. "Not because of some fancy degree or your pick-and-choose authenticity lulling me into blindly trusting you. But because you actually get it."

He doesn't react. His face is calm and smooth, even as his eyes storm.

I soften my voice and lean further across the table towards him. "Maybe it shouldn't matter to me that you've been through similar stuff as me. Your mother, your wife. And I'm sure I would be just fine seeing another therapist, if that's what you really want me to do. But why, Damon, when you are probably the person most qualified to help me of anyone?"

I shake my head, rejecting the thoughts in my mind before they even reach my lips. My voice sounds smaller and more vulnerable than I want it to be when I speak, all of my impassioned bravado gone. "I don't want to have to tell that story again, Damon. Start all over." I look into his face, willing him to understand. "I've told that story so many times, but nobody has ever looked at me the way you did. Like you understood me. Do you even get how important that is? How much it means to be heard instead of pitied for once?"

"Yes," he says quietly. "Yes, I do."

"Exactly," I say, leaning into the backrest of my chair.

"But there's a reason that rule exists, Elena," Damon counters, his voice emphatic, almost guilty. "Because there are things you may want to tell me as a therapist that you wouldn't necessarily want a friend to know. You wouldn't necessarily tell your best friend's brother you have hallucinations, but you told me because when you came into my office, you were prepared to see a therapist, not a family friend."

"That's true Damon, and yes, I came to your office because I needed a therapist. I still do. But I think that the connection between us is pretty undeniable, don't you?"

Damon freezes. "What do you mean?"

I soften my voice, too caught up in my impassioned argument to make sense of his strange reaction.

"I mean that it's about more than therapy for us, Damon. We know what the other has gone through. You and I understand each other on a level that even Caroline, my very best friend in the whole wide world, can't. I hope she never will." Damon's posture relaxes and I inhale deeply, gathering my thoughts.

"Maybe it will be uncomfortable sometimes, but I am not afraid to go there with you if you promise that you are in this with me. And if you can honestly say it won't be too hard to work on my case because of the similarity to your own life." I lower my voice even further, so it is just above a whisper. "I can be brutally, embarrassingly honest with you if you can be totally straight with me if you start to feel like I'm holding back, or that it is too hard on you to relive these things with me."

"Brutally honest," he murmurs to himself, deep in thought. A light smirk plays on his lips that I don't understand, but I don't ask about it. I've said everything I can think of to say. It's up to him now.

He looks up. His face is completely unreadable in the low light. He scans mine with bright, crystalline eyes, fluid with the many thoughts that are shifting and changing shape behind them, just out of my reach.

We are silent for a long moment. And then he speaks.

"You're right, Elena. It's not my place to tell you what you are or aren't feeling," he says simply. "I'll trust you to tell me if it's not working anymore. And I'll promise to do the same."

He takes a deep, costly-sounding breath. "It's not going to be easy because this is uncharted territory for me," he hedges. "But I promise to try, okay?"

And then he leans forward in his chair to lock me in a searing gaze, his eyes sparking with intensity and conviction. "And I just need to tell you one more time, Elena, just in the off chance I haven't made this perfectly clear already: anything you tell me in therapy is absolutely confidential. It goes nowhere, period. If Caroline even ever so much as asks me how you're doing, I'm going to tell her to ask you. Do you understand?"

"Yes, I do," I say. "I trust you, Damon." And it sounds like a vow, a covenant.

He pauses for a long moment, searching my eyes in the flickering candlelight.

"Okay," he almost whispers, his voice gravelly and low.

The air shifts around us. I feel electricity sparkling over my skin, down my spine, in response.

I narrow my eyes into the tiniest teasing glare as I pick up a slice of my patiently waiting pizza. It is miraculously still warm. I hold it up to my lips, tipping my chin and letting my eyes dart briefly to his plate, encouraging him to join me. He catches my hint with an almost imperceptible smirk and picks up a slice, his eyes twinkling. He holds it up to his mouth, waiting for me to bite. I do, and he follows suit, looking like he's holding back a chuckle.

It feels like the strange combination of a pact being sealed and a childish game, and I feel my heart racing at one and want to giggle at the other.

The conversation finds its way to simpler topics. To pranks he used to play on a rival dorm in college, to the weirdos he meets at the psychologists' conventions he sometimes attends, to the exotic sights he encountered during the long crazy summer when he traveled with Katherine after they graduated from their masters program. He keeps it light, and I don't press him further.

I don't have to start over with someone new.

"I'll trust you."

We've gained enough ground today.

Author's note: Gasp! What's this, Nightlight? A new chapter a whole day earlier? I had it here all ready for you and I just figured, after how supportive you all have been of me and this fic, I would go ahead and hand it over. THANK YOU to everyone who Reviewed and Followed and Favorited this week. I read, re-read, and obsess over every single one.

That being said, please review and let me know what you think of this chapter. Trogdor19 and I worked really really hard on it...I almost need to give her co-writing credit on this one for all of the challenges she made to my initial argument. I feel this gets much closer to the heart of what makes Damon and Elena's relationship different from that of a typical therapist/client.

Speaking of Trogdor19, endless thanks to you, whose brutal honesty and crowing inner black woman made this chapter what it is, and whose palpitating heart and leg-slapping, eye-smashing excitement over this fic (and other mysteries) somehow continually inspires me to abandon everything and everyone else in favor of MORE CHAPTERS!

And if you're new to this fic, Follow/Favorite because next week is Trogdor19's most FAVORITEST chapter to date, a Jenna/Alaric chapter!

Have a fantastic week!