Hearts and Souls

Epilogue: We Are Gathered Together …

(A special note of thanks to everyone who has reviewed, subscribed to or favorited this story over the last fourteen months. Without an appreciative readership, a writer is just a lonely neurotic talking to himself. You have been the Parmesan on my spaghetti, folks - this chapter is for you.)

Rhodey had a great vantage point to look at the crowd. And what a crowd it was.

It had been almost three years since Tony had thrown any parties, so the ballroom at the Stark mansion had gone unused all that time. But this rainy Saturday morning in January, it had been turned into a rather sharp-looking wedding chapel. And everyone was there.

Standing next to Rhodey were Tony's other groomsmen, Bill Riva and Happy Hogan. Across from them were Pepper's bridesmaids – Melanie Haeger (an old friend from Pepper's college days), Natalie Rushman and Sue Kim. Rhodey didn't know the details, but apparently Sue's entrance into the bridal party had caused some tension and led to delicate negotiations between the bride and groom. They'd finally settled it only with a scheme that was worthy of Tony Stark's genius.

Tony had realized that once his and Pepper's relationship went public, the chances of a quiet private wedding dropped precipitously. So he made it an exclusive – and sold the rights to Vanity Fair and Christine Everhart, in continued thanks for her unintentional life-saving actions of a few years previous. The magazine would have full rights to pictures from the ceremony (which they planned to pair with Christine's interview of Tony in the March issue), and Christine (whom Tony wanted to invite anyway, but whom Pepper loathed) got a seat on the groom's side, along with a VF staff photographer. (And the purchase price for the exclusive went to the American Red Cross.) Christine's inclusion was the price of Sue's.

Other notables were in attendance. Most of the Stark Industries high command, department heads and board members, were there; Ronny Blankenship would be giving away the bride. Nick Fury had made the trip, and for his trouble had been introduced to one Dr. Christopher Walling and his date Dr. Martha Chavan, whom Tony had flown all the way from India and put up at the Malibu Beach Inn at his own expense. Nick and Dr. Walling (whom Rhodey recognized only after hearing his voice) were huddled together at that moment, having what was probably an interesting conversation. Larry Ellison and several other tech bigwigs were present, along with a smattering of local politicians and a few Hollywood luminaries. And there was a sizable contingent from the Pegasus Project.

Rhodey smiled at Adele Carey – third row, bride's side - who gave him a smile and wave in return. It had taken him a bit of work to realize that part of the reason he'd reacted so strongly to Tony's perceived pass at Adele back in October was jealousy. But once he had, he knew what he needed to do. He'd finally taken the chance to talk to her about it on (ironically) Tony's plane when they were flying to Washington for the public announcement about Pegasus, at the White House on Christmas Eve. (A nice bit of scheduling, as it meant feel-good front-page stories on Christmas Day, usually the slowest news day of the year.) She was also so inclined – in fact, she'd been wondering what was taking him so long to act – and aside from when Air Force business took him elsewhere, they'd been close to inseparable since.

Yeah, everything was ready for the wedding of the year, new though the year was. With two exceptions.

Where the hell were the bride and groom?

Rhodey looked at the municipal judge (a friend of Tony's) who would perform the ceremony, but the old man just shrugged. Well, once a babysitter … "I'll see if I can hunt them down," he said to the others in the wedding party, and shaking his head, he went to do just that.

It wasn't that hard, actually. Rhodey guessed that if both Tony and Pepper were running late, that meant they'd either slipped off for some pre-ceremonial nookie and lost track of time (unlikely, though not impossible) or …

He headed downstairs.

… yep, they were working on something in the lab. "Uh, guys? Not to be a pain or anything, but your wedding was supposed to start ten minutes ago?"

"Which means nothing is going to happen until we get there," Tony remarked. He was wearing his tuxedo, and the right gauntlet of his suit.

Pepper giggled, then added, "though we probably should wrap this up soon." She was looking radiant in an ivory Vera Wang wedding dress, one that had been refitted twice in the last month to accommodate her burgeoning pregnancy. "You think it'll work this time?"

"If it doesn't, I'm out of ideas for the time being. Release the hound!"

Pepper picked up a glass jar from a nearby table, unscrewed the lid and freed a housefly from its captivity. The fly buzzed around, exploring its environment for something to nibble, flew within two feet of Tony …

… and Tony snatched it out of the air with his gauntleted hand and a sharp bark of triumph. "Ha!"

Pepper shook her head. "All that trouble with the gauntlets - because of two redundant lines of code. Which means, Tony, you're going to need to reprogram Adele's hand …"

"After the honeymoon."

"Ours or theirs?" Pepper quipped, motioning to Rhodey.

He was just glad white people couldn't tell if he was blushing. "Well done, Grasshopper," he told Tony. "Now can we get on with this?"

Tony held up the fly, still buzzing in his metal grip. "You've served us well, little fella." Then he crushed it, threw it in the garbage and began removing the gauntlet. "JARVIS, copy the edited program into both suits for later today. Pep, can you reattach this –" He held the gauntlet up. "- to my main suit?"

"Sure. James, could you tell Ronny I'll meet him upstairs in just a minute?"

"Not a problem." Rhodey already had Tony by the arm and was leading him toward the ballroom. Once they were out of earshot, he said, "looks like you two are gonna make this thing work."

"Like I've said before, Platypus – she completes me." No smirk this time.

After that, at least, everything went off without a hitch. The vows were said, rings were exchanged, the couple were pronounced husband and wife, and the bride got thoroughly kissed. The guests repaired to the formal dining hall, while two photographers (Vanity Fair's and the one Tony and Pepper brought in) took pictures of the wedding party and the event staff transformed the ballroom back into a ballroom. Once lunch and the accompanying toasts ended, the DJ started spinning tunes and the dance floor and bar were opened. Drinks were drunk, fun was had, one Stark exec wrenched a back muscle while dancing "Planet Claire," and someone had to hunt down Christine Everhart's notepad after she lost it, then passed out, following her fifth Alabama Slammer. (Pepper seemed mildly amused at that; Tony just shook his head.)

Soon it was time for Tony and Pepper to sneak off, change out of their formal clothes and get ready to leave on their honeymoon (location undisclosed to anyone but Rhodey, Ronny, Natalie and Happy – all of whom were sworn to secrecy). Rhodey had already made sure Tony's limo was suitably decorated with shaving cream and soda cans; the plan was for Happy to drive them to LAX, where they'd take the plane to their destination. But fifteen minutes after the couple's departure from the ballroom, Happy came up to Rhodey, looking confused. "Boss just gave me this note to give to you …"

Rhodey took it and looked at it. It simply said, "Have everyone come outside, via the front door. T."

He turned back to Happy. "Probably just going to do the bouquet throwing out there. I think the rain's stopped for the moment – let's tell them to move." And soon the hundred or so guests (minus Christine, still sleeping it off in a guest bedroom) were out in front of the house, waiting for whatever came next.

What came next was an ominous bass rumble from the opposite side of the house.

Rhodey spun around, and was quickly joined by everyone else. What the …?

That question was answered soon enough, as a familiar red-and-gold suit appeared, rising over the roof. But what followed it was the real surprise: a similarly constructed suit, only a little smaller, done in pink and silver, with a slightly bulging belly. And in its (newly reprogrammed) right gauntlet, the bridal bouquet.

Rhodey glanced at Happy. "Toldja."

The two suits moved until they were hovering about thirty feet above the crowd. Then the pink one wound up and threw the flowers underhand toward the guests. Most of the women were too stunned by the spectacle to even get their hands up, and those who did were out of position. The bouquet ended up dropping like a cricket ball right into the grasp of Dr. Martha Chavan, who stared at it uncomprehendingly until Dr. Walling explained the tradition to her.

And then as one, the two suits turned to face southeast, began moving away, picked up speed, and with twin sonic booms disappeared over the horizon.

Leaving Sue Kim, still staring up at the sky, to summarize the situation. "Best. Wedding trousseau. Ever." And the whole assemblage broke up laughing.

(Do note that I didn't use the words "THE END." Because it's not; not for Tony and Pepper – obviously, duh – and not for me. Beginning next week, I'll be starting a series of short stories entitled "Vignettes," which is French for … well, for "short stories." They'll continue the plot line of "Hearts and Souls" through the coming years, as Tony and Pepper deal with marriage, parenting, Stark Industries and whatever else might come along. I plan on posting one per week through the end of the year, and then wrapping it all up, kicking back and waiting for the release of The Avengers. Stay tuned!)