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Equilibrium Disturbed

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Spring 2004
The Manuscript Centre of the Bibilotheca Alexandrina
Alexandria
Egypt

Draco eyed his co-worker surreptitiously as she bent her head over their shared work table and alternated between scribbling furiously on a sheet of paper and staring at the tattered, yellowed piece of parchment placed before her. Her brown curls were scraped back from her face in a haphazard knot at the nape of her neck and a frown marred her features. She looked quietly determined and horrifyingly efficient as she catalogued the parchment’s state. She was seated not four feet away from him, the distance between them close enough for him to imagine he could feel the warmth of her along his entire left side.

Of course, he was imagining things. The Centre’s laboratory where all restoration work was carried out was temperature-controlled; it may have been a rather warm, humid spring day outside in the second largest city in Egypt, but it was cool and dry within the walls of the laboratory, even slightly cold.

He’d been staring at her a lot lately. Granger. Hermione.

To such a point where he’d even been distracted from his work.

With a quiet sigh and a silent injunction to himself to stop staring at Granger like some love-sick boy—he was a Malfoy—Draco pushed the glasses that had slid down the bridge of his nose back into place before he slowly waved his wand over the brittle piece of parchment in front of him, softly murmuring an incantation he himself had devised to gently clean and remove whatever particles of dust, dirt, and mould that clung to its surface. The parchment itself was yellowed and brown, its handwritten words in an ancient language faded and discoloured, evidence pointing to acid deterioration. It, together with Granger’s piece and eight other similarly shaped pieces—worn and folded in some places, torn in others—formed part of what Draco suspected to be a scroll and had been sent over by the goblins of Gringotts in Cairo over a fortnight ago.

As he critically inspected the piece of parchment, he recalled the excitement that had rippled through the employees of the Centre when news had filtered in from Cairo that the goblins had unearthed an important artefact, one that many suspected was connected to an infamous set of ancient texts the Muggles termed the Dead Sea Scrolls.

From Draco’s knowledge, the scrolls were a collection of centuries-old manuscripts depicting the religious thoughts and cultural ceremonies of certain sects. They had been discovered in caves along the northwest shores of the Dead Sea, in an archaeological site known as Khirbet Qumran in neighbouring Israel.

Even though the scroll—his scroll, as Draco had taken to calling it, although he knew Granger would definitely object to his use of that particular pronoun—was rumoured to have been found by the goblins in Nuweiba, a historic coastal town along the Gulf of Aqaba—and nowhere near Qumran—its contents were strikingly similar to the texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It had even arrived at the Centre in a clay jar similar to those used to store the Dead Sea Scrolls. And while it was not unheard of for artefacts to pop up in places surprisingly far from their original location—theft and illegal trades were not uncommon in the antiquities market—it was the faint buzz of magic surrounding the pieces of parchment that proclaimed the artefact’s magical provenance and ensured its delivery to the New Library of Alexandria’s wizarding restoration section.

To Draco’s trained eye, he would say the parchment was probably manufactured sometime between the second and fourth centuries. Despite what seemed to be several layers of protective charms preserving its state, it had, sometime throughout its long life, been exposed to a lethal combination of high heat, humidity, and light, thus accelerating the already natural act of deterioration and decay. He bent his head over the parchment and blew softly, the dust and mould lifting off it in a small, almost indiscernible, puff.

With a wordless charm, a dark purple vapour shot out the end of his wand in a fine mist, enveloping the brittle parchment. The dark purple solution was alkaline in nature and was designed to seep into the very fibres of the parchment to counteract the acidity that was destroying it.

Once this was completed, he set it aside. Some time would be needed before he could ascertain if the parchment had fully absorbed the solution.

He picked up his quill and painstakingly catalogued the parchment’s state prior to the restoration treatment. By the time he finished recording his steps thus far, the parchment would be ready for the next step of its restoration.

Restoration was hard work; time-consuming and tediously slow, it required the restorer to possess infinite amounts of patience as results were never obtained overnight, even using magical restoration methods.

Draco loved it. He loved the long hours and months needed to repair an old tome. He loved the precise and methodical way he had to approach each restoration project. But mostly, he loved the fact that despite using the same methodology, no two projects were alike. The books, codices, scrolls, and manuscripts were very different in the damage they had suffered: acid deterioration, worn and faded pages, misplaced charms, split covers and torn bindings. It was a varied experience, and the subjects covered in each ranged from books of astronomy in Arabic, to scrolls on vivisection in Greek, to folios filled with potion ingredients and magical illustrations.

His work allowed him a glimpse into a time that stressed the value of knowledge over everything else, and reminded him of an old saying he’d came across in one of his restoration projects: the ink of a scholar is more holy than the blood of a martyr. It was a saying he would have scoffed at as a child, swayed as he had been then by the teachings of a misguided father who’d acted under the undue influence of a megalomaniac with a tendency for genocide. He had been brought up with the belief that his magic, his knowledge, his very being, had been superior to others just because he was a Pureblood. His beliefs had been battered and buffeted at school when he was continuously bested by Half-bloods and even Muggleborns. It was subsequently torn to shreds after the events of his sixth year at Hogwarts.

But now—well, he would like to think he’d outgrown the prejudices he’d clung to as a youth, though he would never again be so naïve as he was in the immediate aftermath of the war as to think his past would never impact his future. It had, after all, shaped him into the man he was and continued to do so.

With another sigh, he turned his attention to the work at hand. Glancing at the parchment, he ascertained that the alkaline solution had been fully absorbed before uttering a complex charm meant to magically repair and rebuild the weakened and worn parts of the parchment. And again, he tried very hard to ignore the person working next to him.

Granger. Hermione.

She had, less than six months ago, joined the team of curse-breakers and restorers employed by The Manuscript Centre to deal with artefacts of magical origins that made their way to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. He remembered the day he and the other five members of the team had been called into the office of the Director of the Centre.

And there she had stood: Hermione Granger, his old school nemesis. Their introduction—reintroduction?—had been stiff and coldly polite, vastly different from the smiles she had bestowed freely to the other members of the team.

It had been a clear indication that they shared a somewhat uncomfortable past. It had therefore been something of a shock to Draco—and he suspected for Granger, as well—when the Director, Professor Sunna, had declared that they would be working together. Draco had initially suspected it was a joke on the older man’s part—see the fireworks fly when he and Granger butted heads—though he had discarded that view almost as soon as it’d entered his mind. Professor Sunna was an old wizard not known for his sense of humour. In fact, it was a long-standing joke in the Centre that the last time the Director had cracked a smile was back in 1973.

No. Draco suspected he knew what went through Professor Sunna’s mind all those months ago. The old man was a sly one and not unlike Dumbledore in that respect.

Draco recalled how he and Granger had both initially approached this forced partnership. They only communicated when they needed to. They had also, by some unspoken mutual agreement, taken to studiously avoiding touching each other—even to the extent of passing things to each other by magic. Anything to avoid unnecessary personal contact.

But now—now he found himself staring at her again, his attention having wandered from his parchment to focus instead on her hands, slim and narrow with its slender fingers gripping her Muggle quill—a biro, she’d called it—as she laboriously wrote on. He recalled a time when he would have never willingly touched a Muggleborn. Now, he wondered how those hands would feel in his, those capable, ink-stained fingers interlaced with his as he kissed her. He felt an aching need to reach out and brush his hand against hers.

He remembered the first time those hands had touched him willingly. It had been when he had been rendered temporarily blind by a curse in a codex they’d been restoring—something that ought not to have happened had they actually communicated with something more than terse monosyllabic exchanges.

When the curse had hit, he’d felt a searing pain behind his eyes as all light leached away, leaving him blind and panicked. With his sense of sight displaced, his other senses—the sense of smell, of touch, of hearing—had worked overtime to compensate. That had to be the reason that he had been as shaken by Granger’s first touch as he had been by the curse.

It had been Granger’s voice—equally panicked but somehow still bossy—that had calmed him down as she’d tersely informed him to stay put while she sent for help.

And it had been the feel of Granger’s hand in his—steady, warm and soft, her palm and fingers slightly calloused—as she Apparated him to the Healers in Cairo that had kept blind panic at bay the entire time.

And it had been her smell—that sharp, clean scent of soap tempered with hints of ink and paper and something else that was uniquely Granger—that had comforted him with the knowledge of her presence throughout. He had somehow known that he would not be alone in that cursed darkness, that she would be there with him, trying hard to break the curse.

It had taken that one cursed codex, three weeks of being incapacitated, and a guilt-laden Granger working tirelessly every day that had finally broken the strain between them.

He had been desperate to regain his eyesight and had insisted on doing what he could to break the curse, even in the hospital. Once the Healers had discharged him, Granger had taken it upon herself to ensure he was involved in the research, to the point where she worked partially at the Centre and spent the remainder of her day at his flat, researching through the various books and manuscripts she’d brought with her. She had claimed it was to ensure he was kept updated on her progress, but she had become as much a part of his flat as he was, at times staying over in the spare bedroom to, as she’d claimed, not waste precious time travelling.

They had conversations that went beyond the monosyllabic barrier, and even though he had not required her assistance to help him move around—he was, after all, a wizard, and charms, spells, and various other safeguards had been put in place to ensure he was taken care of, even if he were visually impaired—he had acquiesced to her unspoken request to let her help him, and so that physical barrier of lack of touch, which had started to erode since the day he’d been cursed, eventually became a thing of the past.

They had finally achieved a comfortable equilibrium between them: not really friends, but much more than co-workers.

He now knew she was more than a bossy know-it-all intent on showing off her knowledge and intelligence, and he believed she knew he was more than the pure-blood bigot he’d been in his youth. They were both more than that.

He ran his gaze over the rest of her, taking in her Muggle attire of white, button-down shirt, beige khakis, and sensible brown shoes. Her hair was a mess; she wore no make-up. She looked much the same as she did six months ago: a plain-featured woman, but now she looked endearingly attractive to him. His heart raced at that thought even as his mind shied away from it.

He didn’t know how he’d gotten himself into this predicament—fancying Hermione Granger, for the love of Merlin—but he was going to disturb that equilibrium.

As if he’d said her name aloud instead of just thinking it, he felt her sudden presence right next to him. She was holding out one of the other pieces of his scroll. Alright, so maybe it wasn’t fully his, he thought with some amusement as he took in her face, her pale features lit with animation.

“Malfoy,” she said urgently. He could hear a thrum of excitement vibrating through her tones. He wondered if her voice would carry that same sort of urgency when she was in the throes of sexual passion. He was suddenly, overwhelmingly aware of her. And he knew with a sudden, simple certainty that while Professor Sunna was not a man with humour, he was definitely a romantic at heart. The old man somehow felt that the two of them complemented each other.

“Take a look at this. Look at what’s written.” Her voice cut into his thoughts.

With a quiet cough, Draco composed himself and tried not to blush at his inappropriate thoughts. He definitely needed to do something about his interest in Granger. It really was distracting him.

With that resolve made, his eyes scanned the text of the scroll, mindlessly taking in the glyphs and diacritics when he thought he saw one of the handwritten glyphs move. His eyes opened wide. He blinked and stared. The glyph is question remained guilelessly static. Feeling rather foolish, he took off his glasses and polished the lens on his sleeve vigorously. Putting them on again, he stared at the parchment in shock and quietly gasped. The words on the parchment shimmered. From one moment to the next, what was originally written transformed itself into something vastly different.

He could practically feel her twitching in her excitement. “You saw it?” she asked eagerly.

“I don’t think this is one of the Dead Sea Scrolls at all.” He pushed at his glasses impatiently. “The spells we’ve been using to clean them; they must have unlocked some old spell that’s been keeping this”—he raised the parchment in question with a slightly shaking hand—“secret.” He met her eyes. He knew the anticipation, the thrill of having made a new discovery that shone in hers, would be mirrored in his. “The words—”

She nodded. “It’s still written in the same hand, but it’s describing something totally different. It’s not about religious thoughts or beliefs at all. This”—she pointed to a paragraph near the top of the parchment, her voice lowered—“seems to be an ancient record of how to turn base metal into gold. I wonder if—” She broke off as they both turned to look at his piece of the parchment.

True enough, the handwritten words shimmered and slowly rearranged themselves.

She shook her head, amazement written clearly on her face as she lifted the page. He could see her eyes moving across it, devouring the words. “Goodness, Draco, this—this scroll—the author has listed the names of kings—real historical figures— for whom he’d successfully turned lead into gold. And these historical figures have always been said to possess enormous fortunes. If it’s proven true—I have no words to describe the enormity of this—“ She broke off, biting her lip as if unsure of what to say further.

It drew his attention to her mouth and a totally inappropriate thought popped into his head: Would she be incapable of coherent speech as well when he’s inside her? He quashed that thought firmly. Concentrate. They were on the verge of proving a hitherto unproven fantastical alchemical theory, a theory that centuries of wizards and Muggles alike had attempted but failed to prove, and he could not afford to be so distracted.

“We’ll have to determine when exactly the scroll was written. Ascertain if these kings were contemporary figures—” he started to say out loud but stopped as he felt her fingers interlace with his and gently squeeze his hand. He looked at her in surprise.

Colour washed across her cheeks. But she did not let go of his hand. He squeezed back and was rewarded with a smile.

 

*

Draco stood on one of the eleven cascading levels that made up the main reading hall in the library that had been built as a tribute to the lost Library of Alexandria from days gone by. It may not be as famous as the library of legends, but it was an imposing structure nonetheless, vast and architecturally striking.

The floor of the main reading hall was filled with Muggles—tourists and serious visitors alike—marvelling at its impressive interior. Draco loved the main reading hall. It was designed such that sunlight filtered in through a thirty-two metre high glass-panelled roof that was tilted out towards the Mediterranean Sea like a giant sun-dial.

He would ask her out, today, he promised himself. There was a quaint little cafe nearby that served qahwa and French pastries that even he admitted were better than what the house-elves at Malfoy Manor could achieve. And he had heard Granger say, not two days ago, that she was fond of chocolate éclairs. And she had said it to him and blushed as she did. He had decided to take that as a sign that perhaps she was as interested in him as he was in her.

They could talk about work—of course they would talk about work. Their recent discovery, if true, could lead to even more amazing discoveries. Already the goblins at Gringotts in Cairo were battling it out with so many others as to who owned their scroll.

Yes, they would talk about work, but they would also talk of other things.

Their equilibrium would definitely be disturbed, but he had a strong feeling that in doing so, something infinitely better would come out of it.

khallas