Watching Hermione with one eye and keeping the other on the tent flap in case an opportunity to escape presented itself, Severus stood facing the furious Gryffindor, warily taking in her body language. Soon he gave up all hope of escaping--she was angry, but her fury wasn't powerful enough to impairing her judgement. Right now she was standing in front of him in silence. He could feel her scrutiny as her eyes raked across his face.

Oddly, Severus actually felt bad for the way he'd been treating her--not that he could ever let Hermione know that. Momentarily distracted by thoughts of being an utter bastard to Hermione in order to get the whole ordeal over with, he realized this was one conflict he couldn't hide from. There were still eight months to go. He mentally slapped himself--he'd just thought about their sham of a marriage in the same terms as he would a prison sentence. Something about the comparison bothered him, especially because Hermione's sacrifice to him had been so noble, despite her stated ulterior motives. As he waited for his well-deserved reprimand, he noted with some amusement that his self-torture over this would be far more grueling than any punishment Hermione could dish out.

The evil power humming in the air was starting to suffocate him. Unlike before, he knew that Voldemort was urging him to relapse into his violent behavioral tendencies. While Severus' mind was focusing on not being a bastard to Hermione, he could feel the evil trying to enter his mind and bring out the worst in him. The Dark Mark was itching again, but he forced himself not to give any indication that he was aware of it. But the implications were clear--if Severus lost any of his self-control, some of his actions might be less than pleasant. The Dark Lord's influence over him was still powerful, and it was growing with every step they took towards Romania.

Hermione took in a deep breath and, through sheer willpower, visibly calmed down. Severus still waited patiently, knowing that while his pride would not allow him to express contrition, he owed her these moments of patience for all of the things he had done--and would do--do her.

"Sit down," she sighed. He raised an eyebrow and complied. Sitting across from him, Hermione's eyes bored fearlessly into his own. No one had ever looked at Severus this way, willingly and fearlessly, except for Albus and Tatoya. He felt his respect for her raise itself another notch.

"You've been avoiding me," she declared flatly. It wasn't a question or an accusation--merely a statement. The indifference with which she said it startled and upset Severus, though his face remained impassive. He merely affirmed Hermione's statement with a nod.

"Something is bothering you." Another statement which drew another nod. The pressure of the guilt Severus was bottling inside himself caused his control over his tongue to snap.

"Is this all you wanted from me, Miss Granger?" he asked thinly, his voice dripping disdain. "It seems you have merely dragged me in here in order to state the obvious." A vein in Hermione's neck twitched.

"So we're back to Miss Granger, are we?" she drawled. The vein twitched again--it was the only reaction Severus had drawn from her, but he knew her Gryffindor blood had to be boiling.

"Haven't you always been Miss Granger?" he responded, unable to stop himself. "Besides, why pretend? In eight months we'll be free of each other." The silence was chilling as Hermione pinned Severus with a glare he himself would have considered an accomplishment.

"Is that it, Professor?" she spat. "You want to be free of me?" He merely raised an eyebrow, as if to say, 'What do you think?'

Severus didn't see the slap coming until her palm collided viciously with the side of his face, leaving a ring in his ears and a glaring, smarting handprint. He found himself giving in to the power humming around him, and with a primitive growl he leapt at Hermione and pinned her to the ground, covering her body with his own. She struggled beneath him, but it barely registered in his foggy mind.

"Don't you ever slap me again," he snarled, low in his throat. "My problems are no concern of yours, and you will kindly keep your nose out of my affairs." Hermione made a strangled noise and squirmed again. Severus realized he was crushing her--and how close together their bodies were. He had wanted to feel her beneath him for so long--but not this way. 'Severus,' he thought to himself, 'Do you have to ruin everything you touch?'

Guilt and excitement, then panic, rushed through him, and he all but leapt off of her. How had he lost his grip on himself? He could feel the mark throbbing, asserting its power over him, and he subconsciously allowed his left hand to stray to it. As Hermione hauled herself up, Severus looked away remorsefully. He didn't notice her eyeing the spot that he rubbed on his right forearm.

"Hermione," he groaned, his voice thick, "I am so sorry..." But she just looked at him with mingled fury and terror. When she began to inch away from him, Severus' throat tightened. Before he could stop himself, Severus was rolling up his right sleeve. Unable to meet her eyes, he thrust his forearm forward to show her the source of his deepest shame. Her gasp was audible, and Severus tried not to cringe.

"I wasn't sure if you were in danger or not," he murmured, "and I was afraid that telling you would place you in harm's way. But Hermione, the darkness is all around us, and it's calling to me. Dark magic is an addiction--one I could relapse into at any moment if I lose control of myself. It's not just Voldemort I must protect you from anymore."

Hermione looked at him for a moment, frowning slightly, but then nodded gravely. The mark was still throbbing, and she curiously reached out to touch it. Severus hissed and withdrew his arm, his raw and unguarded moment past. Hermione held up her hands to indicate she meant no offense.

"Is there any way to release you from this, Hermione?" he asked, desperate for her to take the escape route, provided there was one. "If you can, I am begging you to get as far away from here--and from me--as possible. Go back to Hogwarts and tell them what is happening. Go now." The urgency in his eyes and voice made Hermione's own eyes soften, but she shook her head.

"There is no way that I know of for us to end this. But that's enough for tonight. Let's go to bed." He nodded and lay beside her for the first night in many, finding her presence more comforting than he expected. They still didn't touch, and his back was to her, but neither of them had retreated as far away from the other as possible. Severus found himself regretting that she was so loath to touch him, and knew that now he could not touch her without guilt overtaking him.

"Besides," she whispered in the moments before they drifted off. "Even if it were possible, I wouldn't be going anywhere."