The Meaning of Birds

'Well, now, I will play the prophet, and tell you what is in the mind of the immortals, and what I think will come to pass; although I am no prophet really, and I do not know much about the meaning of birds.'
-Homer, The Odyssey

From the doorway, Jack's hands were the only thing Ianto was able to see. They were working in the rich yellow light of an old lamp pulled close, the rest of the ancient archival room cast in deep shadow, the kind of heavy, safe darkness that made Ianto love these tunnels and these rooms, where he could part the black by walking with a lantern the way a lioness parts the tall grass.

Jack looked up, and his smile told Ianto what a cursory check in a mirror would have done; Ianto's shirt was half-buttoned and untucked, cuffs open and unfolded over his hands, thrown on over trousers that may or may not have been Jack's (it was dark in the bunk, and the light would hurt his eyes), his hair east. He smiled sleepily back. "This is where I ask if you're coming back to bed."

Jack beckoned for him to come into the room, grin brightening at the pad of Ianto's bare feet across the stone floor. "I like this look on you."

"Homeless?" Ianto asked, stopping next to Jack's chair and leaning a hip against the table.

Jack gave a playful tug to the hem of Ianto's shirt. "Loose," he said. He gestured at the table. "Look at this."

It shone in the rich pool of light cast by the old lamp, and Ianto leaned closer, reaching out with tentative fingers to brush against the impossibly thin copper sheets that made it up. It was a bird. A copper clockwork bird, round and sweet, just about life-size. The detail of it was extraordinary, each feather a carefully formed sheet of gold-brown metal, the glass swell of its breast making visible the cogs that would make it move, and the small key that would wind it. The cant of its head even made it look curious, regarding these two men in the dark, the comfortable press of Ianto's side against Jack's arm.

"It's a toy," Jack said. He pushed a little pile of tools to the opposite corner of the table. "It should fly. If I can fix it."

"Where did it come from?" Ianto withdrew his hand and sat on the edge of the table, still staring down at the little bird. Its eyes almost had an intelligence, the way that inanimate objects sometimes have expressions. It looked pleased.

"There are a lot of answers to that question." Jack looked up at Ianto and grinned. "Which one do you want?"

"Try all of them," Ianto said, amused. "Perhaps in linear order."

"It was probably made somewhere in the early fifty-first century," Jack said. He picked the bird up, careful, turning it slowly in his hands, one way and then the other. "There was a fascination with clockwork for a while at the time. It died out before I was born, but there was still a little interest. Technology had advanced so far that this kind of simple, contained design was charming." He glanced up at Ianto. "Beauty was efficiency. People loved to be able to see how something worked, watch the mechanisms moving."

"I understand the appeal," Ianto murmured. He was quiet for a moment, watching the copper tips of the tail feathers catch the light. "But I don't see how the clockwork could make it fly."

Jack shook his head. "It's just a clockwork heart. It powers the computer that makes it fly. That's buried a little deeper. Smaller than the nail on your little finger." Jack set the bird down and folded his arms against the table, leaning on them to stare down at it. "When I first found it, I couldn't think of how to fix it."

"When did you find it?"

Jack smiled fondly, eyes going a little distant as Ianto watched. He loved that expression on Jack's face, when Jack was remembering something good, something fun that had happened to him. Jack could talk forever about those times. "1920's," he said. "Paris. An antique shop in Montparnasse."

Ianto smirked. "Is this your discreet way of telling me you shagged Ernest Hemingway?"

Jack laughed, looking up at him. "Marcel Duchamp. I gave him the idea for the urinal."

"Lies," Ianto sighed. "So you've figured out how to fix it?"

"Might have." Jack drummed his fingers against the table. "It just occurred to me when I was about to fall asleep. Then I had to come down and see if it would work."

"How long've you been down here?"

Jack shrugged. "An hour, maybe."

Ianto fell silent, his eyes on the back of Jack's hand. His gaze traced the lines of Jack's knuckles, the edges of Jack's fingernails. He repeated, "It just occurred to you."

Jack nodded. He drew his folded arms a little closer to his body. "You know how sometimes, when you're going to sleep or walking around thinking about something else or doing something on autopilot, you'll think of something you could have said to that person when you were fourteen? Or you'll remember where you left something important before you moved house?" Jack sighed, slightly amused. "I have a whole lot of time for those kinds of things to hit me."

Ianto leaned back on an arm, pressing his palm to the top of the table, getting a better angle at Jack's face. "The solution for something you stopped thinking about eighty-nine years ago just came to you while you lay in bed, and you had to immediately come down and see if you were right?"

Jack shrugged again, his voice hesitant. "The thing doesn't usually still exist. When it does – I like when it does. I like when I can do something." He cocked his head at the bird. "But I probably got it wrong anyway."

Ianto looked at the bird for a moment. Then he used both hands to pick it up, bringing it close to his face in order to see the detail of the pattern of feathers, all the separate little pieces that made it perfect. "There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow," he said quietly, not paying attention to the words but enjoying the feel of them in his mouth.

Jack shifted a little, and Ianto looked at him to see his smile. Ianto smirked again in response. "And Shakespeare. Who didn't you boff, Jack?"

"There aren't many." Jack watched the careful way Ianto cradled the bird, as though it were a living thing that could be hurt or made afraid. He reached out to run his fingers over its smooth head, as if to sooth it. "Do you know anything about augury?"

Ianto shook his head slowly, distracted, tracking the movement of Jack's fingers as they stroked the bird's crown. "Omens, yes? Signs?"

"I mean the practice," Jack said. "Old priests in ancient Rome would use the flight patterns and songs of birds to predict the future. It was a kind of divination."

"Of birds," Ianto said. The idea appealed to him in a way that he didn't quite understand. Wizened old men with cloaks and staffs, looking up and watching a murder of crows, looking for answers in their voices and their direction.

Jack nodded. "Better than the kind with bones, I guess." He carefully lifted the bird out of Ianto's hands and set it back down on the table. "It was interesting. The priests who practiced it, the augurs, couldn't advise you on the course of action you should take. If you came to them with a problem, they wouldn't be able to help you. The birds didn't tell you what you should do if your crops weren't doing well. That wasn't what they were for. But if you went to the augur with a plan already formed, he could tell you if it would work or not. If you decided that you should water them differently, then you went to the augur and he told you that your plan wouldn't work, you would have to draw up another one until you found one that would."

Ianto hmmed softly, trailing his fingers along the bird's folded wing. "What's your plan, then?" he asked, smiling down at his hand on the mechanical creature.

Jack grinned. "You're an augur, now?"

Ianto moved his gaze to Jack. "For the moment. Your plan? Time waits for no man."

"That's what I'm afraid of." Jack met Ianto's eyes, his grin dimming a little. "I don't have a plan. Or, I guess, if I do, my plan is to let what happens happen." He sighed, and reached out to play with a button on Ianto's shirt, watching the shade of his skin against the dark material. "What does the bird have to say about that?" He gestured to the copper bird without looking.

Ianto watched Jack toy with the button, feeling for the first time tonight the strange comfort that existed between them -- that let Ianto sit so close as to be almost constantly touching Jack, that let Jack idly mess about with Ianto's clothes when he was nervous or thoughtful. Quietly, Ianto said, "This bird will be made in three thousand years, and you found it in a shop along the Seine in 1920. You talk about the future in past tense, and wear clothes that were in style sixty years ago. Your eyes are the only things that seem to get any older. You wake up in the night with breakthroughs for things you stopped caring about decades ago." His hand settled on the bird, but he met Jack's eyes as Jack raised them slowly. "It's from your time and it doesn't fly or sing. I don't think the bird would say your plan works out."

And Jack smiled. He laid his palm flat against Ianto's chest. "I don't think it really matters," he said.

"Why?" Ianto asked. He felt his heart jump and speed up at the look on Jack's face. The smile. A wonderful, clear smile in the dark of the room, lit by the lamp, the light reflected off of the bird.

"We defy augury."

Ianto laughed, delighted. Then he leaned forward, his hands through Jack's hair, and kissed him. He murmured close to Jack's ear, "You're going to have to tell me all about your time with Shakespeare."

Jack laughed. "He was a handsome guy. Nothing like his portraits."

Ianto shook his head, disbelieving, but with a smile. "You would say that," he said. He stood up. "This is where I ask, again, if you're coming back to bed."

"I will," Jack said. He glanced back at the bird. "Give me half an hour."

"It's your sleep deprivation," Ianto said, tossing a hand and turning in the direction of the door. He took a few steps, then stopped. He turned back. "Jack," he said.

Jack looked up at him, away from the bird. "Hm?"

Ianto wavered for a second, looking uncertain. Then he smiled and shook his head. "I'll see you upstairs."

Jack nodded. "I'll be up soon."

Ianto turned once more for the door and crossed the room. At the doorway, in the dark, he looked back for a moment. Jack was once more hunched over the table, just hands in a pool of light. Working on the future. Fixing what he could.