The taxi drops him at the bottom of the driveway; Mike pays the driver from the crisp bundle of fifties that he'd been given at the same time that he received his freshly laundered clothes and a bottle of pills that he's still not sure if he's going to take. The walk up to his sister's house is a mile or more, and the morning sun is already hot, but he doesn't mind. For three weeks, he's had nothing to do but stare at the blank white walls of a hospital room while medical staff take blood samples from him and refuse to answer his questions. The fresh air is good; the sunshine is good, because it makes his skin feel warm in a way he can trust. He's happy to walk.
As he comes round the curve of the pond, he sees a figure sitting on the porch. For a moment, he thinks it's Mindy, back early from dropping the kids to school, but quickly realises that it's a stranger, a white woman, her long hair glinting red-gold in the sun. She's reading something on a tablet computer, seemingly engrossed, but as soon as Mike starts to climb the steps to the porch, she looks up with a brilliant, expectant smile.
"Mr Peterson," she says, setting the tablet to one side before standing and offering a hand to him. "It's lovely to meet you."
Mike looks from her face, to her outstretched hand, and then back to her face. He opts to stick his hands in his pockets. "What do you want?"
The pleasant expression on the woman's face doesn't falter, but she does lower her hand. "I'm sorry, it was rude of me not to introduce myself. I'm Pepper Potts." She gives her name like she expects it to mean something; when it clearly doesn't, she continues, "I work for Stark Industries."
Mike folds his arms. That's a name he's heard of, and frankly, that's all he needs to hear to know that this woman is bad news. He's taken too many chances before. All he wants now is to be left alone to raise his son. "I'm going to ask you nicely to leave my sister's property, Miss Potts. I'm not interested in hearing any business propositions."
"I'm not here with a business proposition," Potts says, which is clearly so much bull. Even if she hadn't told him the company she works for, she's wearing heels and a skirt suit that he can tell is worth more than he's earned some years. Mike knows he's made some bad choices the past couple of months, but he's not a fool.
"This a social call?" Mike says flatly. He's tired. All he wanted to do was come back here, see his son and his niece, maybe coax Mindy into making some of her chicken noodle soup for him, and then nap in a proper bed. He doesn't want to have to put up with any more of this.
Potts' head bobs from side to side in a funny little gesture of ambivalence. "You could call it social, but personal might be more accurate. Please, can we sit?"
Mike thinks what the hell, shrugs, and sits down opposite her on one of the wicker porch chairs. From this angle, he can see around to the far side of the house, to the dark town car parked in front of the barn that he hadn't noticed before. The driver's leaning against the hood, a petite woman whose hair is a darker shade of red than Potts's, cut short and curly.
"I'm not sure how much you've been told about your condition," Potts says.
Mike can't help himself—he snorts and leans back in his seat, folds his arms.
"Yes," Potts says wryly, "that is something of a recurring failing with SHIELD." She folds her hands in her lap. "But they told us something about it. That is, when Doctors Fitz and Simmons were having difficulties finding a serum that could help your condition, they got in contact with my company. They believed that we might have some expertise in this area."
Mike flinches, makes to stand, but Potts puts up a hand to stop him. "Not like you're thinking—we've never attempted experiments like the ones you were put through."
"But you were experimenting?"
"To find a control, not a cause," Potts says. "The injections they gave you to stabilise the Extremis reactions are the same ones which were first developed to help me."
Mike stares at her. "You're…"
Potts nods. "It wasn't something I volunteered for. I was abducted. The goal was to use me as a threat, in several different ways."
"But it didn't work?"
Potts looks away for a moment, out over the pond and the fields and the mountains beyond, squints at the bright sky. "I didn't let it," she says eventually. "And now…" She holds one hand out, palm upwards. She takes a breath, and then there's flame there, sheltered in the curve of her hand; her eyes glow golden, but there's no tension in the lines of her face, no sign of the anger that had made Mike feel like he was going to break apart at any moment. The flames flare briefly brighter, then fade away, and Potts looks up at Mike with a smile. "Now I don't have to let it use me."
Mike clears his throat, not sure why he suddenly feels like he wants to cry, full on sobbing like he hasn't since he was a little kid. "SHIELD gave me some pills to take, said they would help dull it, take it away."
Potts shrugs. "You can take the pills if you want to. There's nothing that says you have to live with this, or how you should. But when I found out about you I thought that you might like to know that there are alternatives. I like to think of it as making the best of the hand you're dealt."
Mike lets out a breath. "That's pretty philosophical of you."
"Well," Potts says, mouth quirking in a smile that's got more than a hint of wry mischief to it, "my job description does require excellent coping skills."
"So you could teach me?" Mike asks, holding out his hand like she had, cupping it and feeling the flames flicker beneath the surface of his skin, a heat that had been damped down by the pills but which could never be put out entirely once sparked. "How to control it, how to…" Be good, he thinks; be worthwhile.
"I can help you learn," Potts says, and this time when she puts out her hand, Mike shakes it.