The last thing he remembers seeing is Nick Fury's usually stoic face masked in concern and sorrow, and then, Phil Coulson utters his final words, exhales curtly with his final breath, and then he expires into the pitch black coldness of death, nightmarish horses leading him astray.
But a golden stream filters through the darkness, and somehow, he finds himself waking once more, taking a sharp inhale of icy wind and panting furiously as he stumbles to his feet.
He feels heavy but oddly warm, and when he glances down, he lets out a startled noise and yells incoherently; his hands are large mitts of fur, rough pads on his palms and fingers, and when he touches his face, he doesn't feel human skin.
Phil glances around wildly, and to his shock, he finds himself deep in a chain of icy mountains, a flurry of snow just outside the cave he's located in.
"What is this, what's –" and his voice comes out as a garbled grunt, speaking a tongue he doesn't recognize. He thinks briefly of Jotunheim, the Frost Giant planet, but he can't possibly be there; there's nothing that would have transported him there, and hadn't he died? This doesn't add up…
"Ah, another one!" comes a booming, enthusiastic voice, and Phil glances toward the entrance of the cave, a large man with a white beard and red coat lined in black fur headed his way. His accent is Russian, but his rosy cheeks and nose and beard remind Phil of…
"Santa Claus?" he mumbles, again in a foreign tongue, but the Russian seems to understand him.
"Haha! Yes, that would be me. Another Yeti who kept its human memories, eh? Fantastic! Now then, you be comingk with me. Have much to discuss."
Phil blinks, confused, but follows the large man anyhow, if only to get some answers out of him.
They cross hills of snow until a large building comes into sight, and it's festively decorated, despite it being July.
"Where are we?"
"North Pole, of course! Does the snow not give it away?" the tall man chuckles, and he drapes an arm around Phil's shoulders. "This is being your new home now. You are reborn into Yeti, as many great men often are, and you are one of lucky few who remember human life. Come, let us be gettingk you some milk and cookies, yes? And you can tell me who you were, and I can tell you what you will do!"
"I…" Phil is about to protest, but he sighs and nods, continuing to tag along. He's brought into the workshop, and instantly the seeming nonsense about the man being Santa Claus become less nonsensical, and entirely true. There are elves and toys everywhere, as well as a giant globe with twinkling lights on it. It doesn't take Phil long to realize those lights must be children. Children who will receive all of these gifts in a matter of months.
"Incredible, is it not? You will get used to it very soon," North replies, and he guides Phil into an office of sorts, although it lacks the traditional supplies of any office Phil is accustomed to. "Now then, won't you be tellingk me your name?"
"Phil. Phil Coulson," the man-turned-yeti replies quietly, a bit in awe and still trying to regroup.
"Phil Coulson!" North exclaims thunderously, face brimming with joy. "You such a good boy while you were still tiny tot! Hold record for Nice list. You believed for abnormally long time, nearly as long as Steve Rogers! Which be remindingk me: did you like the Captain America toys I would make for you? Hand-crafted some of them myself, because I knew you admired him very much. He is good hero. He has saved so many, even now!" He makes a sad face. "But… this means you are dead. You have been reincarnated into Yeti, because you have strong heart and good will and much faith, but if you are Yeti, then you must have died in the battle against Norse myth, yes?" He shakes his head. "Tragic. It hurts me right here," and he gestures to his broad chest. "But there is nothingk we can be doing about it now. Now is time for you to be Yeti. Bring joy to children with toys you will make; or be agent of factory and protect it from outsiders. Can I trust you to do this? Otherwise, you may be free to roam, but you might make strengthen belief in Big Feet if you are caught."
"Big Foot?" Phil cracks a smile. "Are yetis the reason for Big Foot? And here I thought it was a rogue science experiment set loose…"
"Oh no, is nothingk like that! Just friendly Yeti. But I must know. Will you be stayingk here, or will you be on your own?" North asks seriously, his tone soft, waiting.
Phil thinks it over. "This is all a bit overwhelming after just dying," he says flatly, "So if you don't mind… I would like to be on my own for a while to think things through, and see how everything pans out, especially for the Avengers Initiative. But once I know that much, am I still able to return here and take up a job as one of your… workers?"
"Naturally," North smiles. "Yes, that is soundingk good. You do that, and I will be here working all the while. See you soon, Phil." And he smiles warmly, stands, and shakes Phil's hand, yanking the furball into a small hug before patting his back and sending him on his way.
He's accidentally seen by a conspiracy magazine journalist and winds up with a photo of himself in one of the issues, and months later, a young boy in Burgess purchases the issue and pours over it, and believes in Big Foot. Not too much longer after that, in the spring, Phil signs his name beside his own photo and smiles.
The Avengers succeed. Things return to normal, New York City rebuilt and Phil finding life as a yeti without purpose unfulfilling, so he hikes the long trek back up to the North Pole, and there, he finds Claus and makes an agreement with him. He will work for him as a bodyguard and as security, much like his old job, and not as a toy-maker.
North grins and nods, agreeable.
A week into the job, and already Phil becomes acquainted with a spry young spirit with an icy temper and a personality coated in mischief.
"Old Man Winter?" he remarks, amused, laughing. "You look a bit young to be him."
"Common misconception," the teenage boy replies. "My white hair and tendency to not be seen and only known in second-hand glances are probably to blame. I'm Jack Frost."
"You understand me, then?" Phil says with a raised hairy brow. "Humph. I'm Phil. And you better skedaddle before I kick you out. You aren't allowed in North's factory, kid."
"I'm no kid! I'm over three hundred years old, thank you," Jack quips, smirking. "And I dunno, I like it here just fine. I think I might stay a while."
"Over three hundred? Feh, I've met gods older than you. But three hundred's enough to be considered an old man, Mr. Frost," and Phil smiles, his sharp yeti teeth exposed to the chill air. Jack swallows nervously.
"Um, yeah? I guess so… Gods, you say?"
"Of thunder and mischief, yes."
"…Didn't those guys mess up New York pretty bad? I tell ya, normally I let New York have it in the winter, but this past year or so, I let them off easy while they rebuilt. It was a mess, man. Broken buildings and dead aliens everywhere," and he shudders. "But wait, what does a Yeti know about all of that?"
"News travels fast," Phil lies easily. "Now then, are you going, or am I going to have to use force?" And he punches one fist into the other, and Jack looks scared for a fleeting second.
"Um, no, it's cool. I'll just breeze off. You take care, now, Philly~," and he grins, winking, being swept up by the icy winds before Phil has time to growl and protest the nickname.
Phil has to stop Jack Frost from breaking into the workshop more than once over the next couple years. Each time, they have a small conversation before Phil gently tosses Jack out, and the winter sprite flies off cackling with mirth.
One day, North gets a pretty bad scare, and sends out the signal; the Northern Lights. Creatures – figures of myth that Phil only knew about in his childhood, like the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy and Sandman – from across the globe assemble in North's workshop, discussing something big.
It's only later that Phil is briefed on it.
"Phil Coulson. Have big, big job for you; you might be sayingk that I am comingk to you about Guardians Initiative. Is very important, whole world of children rests on you. I am needingk you to find Jack Frost for me. He is Naughty list record-holder, very sneaky. Is why we will have Bunnymund distract him, and you and other Yeti will be puttingk him into sack! Is brilliant, no? Very good time! You stuff Jack into sack – ah, is rhymed! – and be bringingk him here through portal. He will be part of Guardians, like me! Is very exciting. He will help us defeat enemy."
Phil tenses. "Which enemy? Not Loki again, surely?"
"No, no! Not trickster god, brother to one of your Avengers. No. Enemy is Pitch Black, or… as you may be knowingk him: the boogeyman."
"…Th… The boogeyman?" Phil deadpans, raising a thick brow. "He exists?"
"Uhn!" Santa grunts. "As real as you and me! Saw him with my own eyes; can feel danger in my belly," he says darkly, touching his jiggling stomach. "Cannot let him win. So we need Jack Frost, and you are perfect Yeti for job! You were S.H.I.E.L.D. agent once. I know little about agency, to be frank, but I am knowingk enough. And I know you are good for job. So you will do it, yes?"
Phil nods his head, smiling idly. "Oh, yes. You can count on me, sir."
"Good man!" North chuckles, belly rolling, as he pats Phil hard on the back, twice.
Phil salutes curtly before turning on his rough heel and padding out of the room. He joins another Yeti waiting with a snow globe and grabs a sack meant for toys, and just like that, he and the other mountain beast are on their way to find Jack Frost.
"…Oh, don't worry; I never got past the yetis!" Jack chuckles, reassuring North of his break-in attempts. He walks back Phil and smiles brightly. "Hey, Phil."
Phil smirks and jokingly pounds his fist into his other palm, like he has done many times before. At this point, it's a joke between them, because Jack knows that Phil will never actually use his brute strength against him; merely use it as a show of possible force without promise, because Jack never really does anything too over-the-line.
Ultimately, Phil doesn't mind being a yeti. Life is never dull as one, and in a way, he can still watch over his fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and their children and do his job, albeit on a different playing field. He gets used to the tall, lumbering body and North's demands, and honestly, he's just glad he could have a second crack at life that still involves the unique and often unseen, and still on the side of the heroic.