Hermione managed. "Hm, let me see." She ticked off a finger, "I'm the best Curse Breaker within four countries, and the nearest two were both taking care of bigger problems than you, if you can imagine," another finger, "you're the one who bloody walked into a Compulsion Curse, a Love Compulsion Curse no less," and another finger, the last, "for whatever reason, Minerva values you and can't stand to see you whither away from need of Love." She threw her hands down at her side. "So unless you know of someone who can fulfill the dictates of the Curse, you're stuck with me and the brilliance you find such pleasure in maligning."
The last was said with a sort of cold cruelty that she knew was unworthy of her.
And despite the fact that his only response was a deliberately cutting, "It's a good thing Minerva has learned to take disappointment well," and he was older than her, Hermione still felt like a fifth-form bully picking on an infant.
To distract herself she said, "Describe the curse to me, everything, even details you think don't matter."
It only made her feel worse when he did a better job than anyone with whom she'd ever worked.
"How did you get caught in the Curse?"
"It's not a well, Miss Granger, it's not something I fell down and couldn't climb my way out of."
But Compulsion Curses were large, they had to be. Compulsion was hard to weave at the best of times, doubly hard when the weave had to stick until someone, well, walked into it. "How did the Curse come into contact with your being?"
"I was not paying attention."
"When I was thirteen I watched you look in four directions all at once."
"I'm slipping in my old age."
Without thinking, Hermione said, "You aren't that old."
He muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, ". . .feel it."
"Snape. Can you not understand that I have to know? You didn't see it, you can't tell me what it looked like, its size, its shape, its color, anything. I have to know how it enveloped you."
"What's the first thing a Curse-Breaker learns about Compulsion Curses, Miss Granger?"
Hermione said, "They're. . .compelling." Specifically, they tended to attract those victims who were already weakened in the specific area of the spell's compulsion to begin with. She frowned. "You want to die?"
"That's easier to believe of me, isn't it?"
Often, if Hermione could get the person not to want what the Curse compelled him to need, it could break the compulsion. It was backward logic, and often their apathy toward the object had to be so strong it bordered on the dangerous, as apathy of that sort could easily spread into other foci.
Hermione didn't know how to convince a nearly fifty year old man that he didn't want love. Most people wanted love, it was an essentially human trait. People who had experienced very little of it craved it more than others.
The Curse was eating at Snape particularly fast given his yearning. Despite his denial, Hermione thought he wouldn't mind dying if he couldn't get what he wanted.
Hermione wasn't ready to have that sort of blight on her relatively spotless Curse-Breaking record.
The thing to do, she decided, was to trick the Curse. There actually were people who loved Snape. Minerva, for one. And Draco, although getting him to admit to loving anything other than himself was like trying to aim an Imperius through a house elf dwelling's keyhole. Given the new information recently presented to her about Snape, she was relatively certain he loved them back.
All she had to do was. . .twist the Compulsion.
She explained the idea to Snape, who, after an interminably long silence said, "Kind of cheating, is it not?"
Hermione handed him a book (that was at least twice his weight) on the flexibility of compulsion and said, "I'm revoking your privileges as Slytherin until you can do better than that."
When he was reading, Snape would curl up at first, as though hoarding the words. After a bit though--perhaps realizing she had no intention of stealing them from him--he would stretch out. This was a slow process, starting with his fingers, (longer than she had ever realized,) crawling through his arms and neck and back, and ending in his legs and feet and toes.
It was unpracticed and elegant, and for whatever reason, Hermione found herself having to force her attention to her own text. She had never once thought anything half so interesting as the delicate weave of a Curse, malevolent in its bittersweet intricacy.
At some point she summoned herself some tea from habit, summoning a second cup out of ingrained politeness. He took it with a murmured, "thanks," and she choked on her own tea.
He had the (shocking) grace not to say anything.
Hermione asked, "The weave, did it feel at all porous?"
Snape tapped thoughtfully on the surface of his book. "It felt. . .Muggles have this material, I remember, my father bought me a ball made out of it once. It bounced."
"Yes, like rubber."
"And snapped back."
Hermione reached across the table and began flipping frantically through the book she'd given Snape to read. She hoisted herself so that she was leaning over the length of the table, reading upside down. "Sorry," she muttered absent-mindedly, aware that her hair had probably occluded his face entirely.
She felt long fingers tuck a strand firmly behind her ear. It wasn't gentle.
It felt that way.
She said, "I think I know how to do this."
The spell to mutate the Curse took a lot of energy. It was wordy, unnecessarily so, really. Hermione had learned that Curse-Breakers evidently liked to hear themselves talk. She'd created all of her breakings as acronyms. Short and slightly humorous. She was entirely sure those who followed and needed the spells would miss the point entirely.
Snape had laughed when she had explained that to him, a tangent on a tangent on a tangent as she had prepared herself. She had been amazed at how he had let her talk, and not just let her talk, had listened. It wasn't easy to tell, he didn't provide soft sounds of encouragement like other people, or even nod his head. He just. . .watched her. Stayed where he was. Laughed a soft breath of comprehension.
When she had finished the spell, all flowing Latin phrases and dramatic waves of her wand, he stood behind her, not touching her and asked, "Well?"
In trying not to fall backward, she swayed forward. He caught her with his hands on her waist. She said, "It probably worked."
"This is my life we're discussing, Miss Granger." His hands didn't waver.
"I need Minerva or Draco to test the theory," she said, panting slightly.
His hands moved without moving, and his quiet, "Ah," felt like a bruise.
Two weeks later Hermione let her eleven o'clock appointment into her office only to find herself face to face with Severus Snape. He was carrying a book with a twine ribbon wrapped around it. He sat down very stiffly and said, "I owe you a Life Debt."
"Yes, well, I'm best friends with Harry Potter so you can pretty much figure I'm going to go the noble and stupid way so far as that's concerned."
"It's rumored that every few years the entire House of Gryffindor petitions to be exempt from receiving Life Debts."
Hermione laughed. Her eyes still crinkled, she said, "If you came only to tell me that, you've underestimated my intelligence even more than the usual amount."
Snape slid the book across the table. "I somewhat figured you wouldn't accept the other offering."
Hermione turned the book to look at its side. It was Muggle. The Science and Mechanics of Rubber Production. "That's either the most thoughtful gift I've ever been given, or the most reductive."
Snape smirked, and his expression was like a curse, not in that it was evil, but that in Hermione could read it without even opening her eyes, could feel her way through it without putting out a hand. He stood and she said, "Severus."
He raised an eyebrow but didn't refute the address. "Hermione?"
"If I had tried to break the Compulsion in the more traditional way, would you have. . .let me?"
At his side, his hands shook for less than a second. "The more traditional way?"
Hermione moved without premeditation, sliding so that her knees came up onto her desk. It was entirely undignified but Snape didn't falter back from it and she was able to hook one hand around the back of his head, her palm resting over his ear, and settle her lips against his. It wasn't exactly soft, she didn't think he had waited this long for something like that, at least not at this moment. She certainly hadn't spent two weeks thinking about sweetness.
He tasted like coffee with not enough cream and too much sugar. Sweet and somehow clean.
She pulled back after a bit--he wasn't moving--and asked, "Would you have let me?"
He ran his tongue over his lower lip in answer. She asked, "Why couldn't you just ask?"
He brought his hand up to twist a curl in his finger. "Until this moment, I hadn't the type of imagination to allow for reading of fairy tales, let alone living them."
For a flash, a second, Hermione imagined herself a princess, and her desk a tower. She leaned in for another kiss from her Prince Charming.
The second stretched on.