Clint takes the problem to Coulson. The garage has been closed for a long time, but Clint doesn’t want to see anyone else. Doesn’t want anyone else to see the mess of metal and leather.
Phil is there, a grey jumpsuit that is neatly buttoned but far from clean. Sleeves pulled up to show half of his forearms and the hair there has caught all of the dirt and oil and grime that such a profession attracts. The air smells stale and the garage is cold. “What can I do for you?” Phil asks.
“I need you to fix it,” Clint says, gesturing to the car, his breath steaming in the frigid air. It had once been a lean thing, fast and furious and beautiful to behold. It’s far from that now.
There are bullet holes in the doors. Long and twisted scars of scratched paint and crumpled panels along the lengthy lines of its form. The leather seats are torn, showing the interior of the interior. When Clint had first laid hands on the car its voice had been a growl of barely contained power, had softened to a throaty purr of controlled energy and good fortune. A classic figure of compact curves. Now it’s a sigh, a sagging mess of voiceless exhaustion.
Phil runs his hand over the roof of the car, and it comes away flecked with red. “Might not be worth saving,” he says.
Phil touches the car from a distance, feeling it with his fingertips and an objective gaze. He is removed but not remorseless, and that is why Clint has come to him. “Open it up,” he instructs, and Clint pops the hood.
Phil unlatches the hood with deft fingers that slip under the shapely lip of the car and instantly find the sweet spot. The car opens for him, perhaps responding to the trust that Clint has in Phil’s work. Perhaps responding to the sheer shine of confident competence. Clint has never understood the bodies of such beasts. His attempts at maintenance have only led to dirty hands and dirty roads, to shuddering breaths of the exhaust.
Phil stares into the mess of the engine cavity and shakes his head. “Got no engine,” he says. Clint stands behind him and looks over his shoulder. It’s true. The cavity is a mess of stretched and dirty leather, and he can see the messy cords of black that have tried to hold the chasm together. “It’s not a car without an engine.”
“Please,” Clint replies.
“It’d be easier to scrap the whole thing,” Phil replies, leaving Clint and pacing around the car. Leaving Clint staring at the mess of wasted potential, the leather rising and falling with the shift of air in the garage. Phil has his hand on the back panel of the passenger-side flank, the lines of his thumb and forefinger framing a bullet hole that Clint had tried to patch up long ago. “Barely anything left to it,” Phil adds.
“Please,” Clint repeats. “I’ll give you anything. Anything you need.”
Phil steps back, fitting the whole wreck into his unique perspective, and Clint digs his fingernails into his palms with the force of his hope. A self-inflicted stigmata if only Phil will agree to second and third and fourth chances, if he will be the patron of rebirth.
“Well,” Phil says at last, and the hood of the car slams closed with a noise like dislocated joints cracking back into place. “It can’t hurt to try.”
The garage smells like dirt and tin and sweat. The air is cold and clean, leaving Clint hyperaware of his unbrushed teeth. His breath steams before him as though he has the power to melt the winter away, but Phil moves as though he doesn’t feel the cold.
His grey coverall buttoned to his collarbones.
His arms pale and messy against the activity of oil and solder.
His inner elbow smeared with rust-red and a song on the radio goes beep… beep… beep.
The car is up on blocks and Phil disappears into its torn and vicious cavity, emerges from underneath and then presses his hands against the warped and sulking metal. He cleans the car, scrubbing away the dirt and blood and neglect. Scrubbing away at it until the raw metal is left underneath, the white light of the workshop catching on every imperfection.
Clint sits with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands, reeking of guilt. It had been such a handsome machine.
“Sometimes things just stop working,” Phil tells him.
The horrible snap of a door being removed, the thready and faltering thuds of sure hands trying to coax the panel back into shape.
“It’s going to be okay,” Phil tells him, and under his hands the carbon steel changes from a dull silver to a dirty cream. The undercoat and overcoat and outer coat, smelling sick and unreal in Clint’s nose.
His breath is steam, is fog, is cloud covering the clearest blue. Is sleep caking at the corner of eyes and the shaking sound of it is eyelashes fluttering but never parting. There is a soft and steady drip drip and the car seems both drained and bloated as Phil tends to its fluids.
“These things happen,” Phil tells him.
“Just fix it,” Clint groans. “Please.”
And a song on the radio goes beep… beep… beep.
Clint sits with an arm outstretched, his hand cradled in Phil’s own. The steering wheel needs to be replaced, is cracked and crooked and unfit to be guiding young impressionables down dark paths. Phil’s fingertips end in a sharp, shiny point. Perfect and pedantic and precise. Phil is cutting down from Clint’s fingertip to his palm, down the outside of his palm and then across. The skin peels away like plastic, loose and unattached, just protective packaging for the precious oddments inside.
“You could get a bike instead,” Phil says as he uses his thumbnails to dislocate the first tiny bone. “Better cornering. You could go far, with the right bike.”
Clint says nothing, watches as Phil prises out the distal phalanx, the middle phalanx, the proximal phalanx. They sit in a neat little row on the grimy bench top, tacky with engine grease and gritty with little flecks of rust. Cut cut cut. Distal, middle, proximal. A metacarpal joins the line, slightly crooked from a break in Clint’s past but the curve of it had felt so good against the gear shift.
“Better parking options with a motorbike,” Phil says as he works his way across the hand, loose skin and lacerated tendons hanging empty in his wake. “Better for city living.”
Clint touches Phil’s wrist with a hand that still holds true. “Please,” he says. Phil nods, and crouches down.
He shaves the side of Clint’s calf with the same blade he uses to cut a strip of the skin. Creamy leather to match the interior. The thick line of it is lain on the bench, bones set inside to give it strength and structure. Phil hammers one bone after the other, driving it into the red and ruined underside of taut tissue, presses each little notch of white into a new home. He seals it all up with a soldering iron, fusing old ideals and new tricks. Every dog. Curiosity kills. The reek of cauterised flesh and the gaping wound at Clint’s calf goes drip drip.
The steering wheel is fixed with quick movements that Clint can’t see, his efforts occupied in trying to catch his own blood in hands that hold nothing. This is why he brought the car to Phil. Phil can fix anything and no price is too high for the joy of watching him work.
Clint is filling up, is overflowing. Sweat, saliva, sebum, saline. Trickling from the inner corners of his eyes, dripping from the sides of his mouth, from under absent fingernails. The floor of the garage was tacky with old oil and hard-earned dust but now it is being cleaned away with all of the things that Clint can’t hold inside.
“The air-conditioning may never be the same,” Phil warns him, his face in shadow and the bright light for illuminating hidden depths creates a halo behind his head. “Old cars don’t last forever.”
Clint’s reply is a jumbled mess of fluid consonants, as though his throat is crying and drowning the words that Clint has never been able to say. But Phil nods absently, understands him regardless. Phil always understands, and that’s why Clint came to him.
Phil sings along with the radio as he makes preparations, and the quiet timbre of his voice is an aching twisting lullaby of beep... beep... beep.
“There’ll be other cars,” Phil says. Clint is sitting on the hood, his legs spread with knees bent and heels resting on the bumper. The engine vent between his ankles, still and silent in its slumber.
The wacky morning DJ has fallen into a trance, spouting spirally prayers to the heretical saints of regret and remorse. “Prep is complete. Moving the patient out of Erebus. Administer Lethe and maintain artificial respiration.” And when she starts the next track playing the disc skips and Clint’s heart skips and the radio croons and single unwavering beeeeeeeee-
Phil places a hand over Clint’s face, the stretch of skin between thumb and forefinger pressing down along the line of his nose, his other hand holding Clint’s chin. Making a seal over his mouth and Phil’s hands are dirty and black from the inside of engines, are made up of cold air and the taste of tin.
The DJ chirps and laughs and sobs. “Count backwards from ten, please.”
“It’s okay to let go,” Phil murmurs above him.
Clint lashes out, reaches up and grabs the back of Phil’s neck, hauling him close. “Phil,” he says. “Please,” he says, and all of the fluids inside him start to overflow and even that simple word is garbled and gargled. He just needs everything to be whole again, just needs the road in front of them and Phil asleep in the passenger seat and his lungs are filling up ready to burst when Phil finally nods.
And then lips are on lips, air pressing into his mouth and Phil’s hands lay firmly on Clint’s cheek, on his chest. Phil’s hands crack open the skin and bone, peel away ribs and twang against a delirious diaphragm. Phil’s hands on him and it is everything Clint had hoped for. The garage is cold and Phil’s fingertips are like ice against Clint’s chest, pushing down on the muscle and revealing that tight hot line of entry, the catch under his hood, the dip of his engine cavity. Saline pours out of him and beneath his back the hood of the car finally receives a clean coat of paint. Nothing more beautiful than shiny red on a classic car.
Clint kisses Phil until everything behind his eyes goes white, until Phil’s blue mouth starts to warm if only because Clint is starting to feel so cold.
The sounds of the radio fade away. Clint’s breath catches in his throat. Beneath him, the engine finally catches.
Clint wakes up on his back, the taste of salted pennies on his tongue. He turns his head to the side, sees Phil lying across the room. His arms look pale resting on top of blue blankets, a little puddle of blood at his inner elbow where the cannula is leaking. Clint stares with crusty eyes, and breathes breaths that are only half as good now, and is so very conscious of the imbalance inside him.
Four hundred and twenty grams of tissue, and no one had told him how empty he would feel.
There is a radio playing somewhere, but Clint pays it no mind because his nose if full of the smell of exhaust and he is surrounded by the song of beep... beep... beep.