It starts when Bucky comes home after the first day of school, stands in front of Steve with his tiny, five-year old hands on his tiny, five-year old waist, and tells him:
“I got a best friend.”
Steve gives him a smile, ruffling his little brother’s soft, brown hair. “Did you, buddy?”
Bucky nods solemnly. “Her name is Vir-gi-nia, but she said I can call’er Pepper, and she got red hair, and she’s the smartest girl in the class. I shared some o’my cookies for lunch, and she helped me with m’numbers."
“That was nice of her,” Steve tells him, and this time, when Bucky nods again, he’s grinning. “We should make more cookies then, don’t you think?”
“Yeah,” Bucky gasps, eyes wide and bright as he jumps delightedly, “Choc’ chip cookies!”
Steve smiles again. “Good choice, kiddo. But you should probably get that homework done first, alright?”
“Okay,” Bucky runs off, and Steve can hear him mumbling about how Pepper pro’ly does her homework real fast.
After that, not a day goes by where Bucky doesn’t talk about her at least once. Sometimes, they’ll be short, passing mentions-- like when he tells Steve: Pepper told me her fav’rite color’s purple-- and other times, it’ll be a story about the one time when Pepper was pickin’ out a book for story time, an’ she asked me what I liked an’ I told her I liked robots, an’ she told me her brother builds robots, an’ he builded her a robot that helps ‘er clean her room!
Every once in a while he’ll mention his other friend Sam, and another girl named Peggy that once punched a boy during recess for being a bully, but it always comes back to little Pepper, and it’s not long before Steve’s curiosity wins him over. So three weeks into the year, instead of dropping Bucky off at his bus stop, Steve takes him to school himself.
It’s no small crowd gathered at the gates, with parents hugging and kissing their children goodbye, nudging them into the main building. Bucky pulls him along towards the front, Steve’s big, bulky body paving a path for them easily.
“Come on, Steeb,” Bucky urges, pushing more than a couple of parents out of the way in his haste to get to his best friend. Steve’ll have to remind him that’s not a nice thing to do, but his brother’s definitely not the only one doing it, so he can let it pass just this once.
Finally, though, they reach the gates, and that’s when Steve spots a little girl-- her bright, red hair styled in two neat plaits over her shoulders-- standing next to an old, suit-clad man, holding his hand as she looks around. He knows who she is almost instantly, and even if he hadn’t, Bucky’s excited little "Pepper!" would’ve settled it, too. He lets go of Steve’s hand to practically fling himself all the way to where she stands, and Steve would’ve worried about losing his little brother in a crowd, even one right next to the school, but the little girl is watching Bucky like a hawk, and the old man’s smile makes Steve feel inexplicably better.
“Hi Bucky,” Pepper chirps, all bright, blue eyes and dimpled cheeks.
Bucky grins back. “Pep,” he points to Steve, “this’s Steeb! He’s my brother, an' he likes to draw like you!”
Steve crouches until he’s eye level with her. “Hello, Pepper. It’s lovely to meet you,” he holds out his hand, and she shakes it with a grip surprising strong for a five year-old.
"Who’s your favorite painter?” she asks with a smile, and Bucky suddenly looks eager to hear his answer. That’s a first, Steve thinks.
“Picasso,” he says, and Pepper wrinkles his nose.
“Tony says his paintings look like crap,” she giggles, and the old man-- maybe he’s this Tony, or her dad?-- clears his throat.
“You shouldn’t go repeating whatever Master Tony says,” he looks down at her. “He tends to have some... rather colorful opinions, after all.”
The final bell goes off before anyone can say anything else, and Steve says his goodbyes as both children run inside, and then he’s alone in the waning crowd with the old man. “Steve Rogers, nice to meet you,” he says, sticking out his hand again.
The old man takes it with a amused smile. “Edwin Jarvis, the Starks’ butler.”
“Nice to meet you, sir,” he says.
Jarvis chuckles. “No sir. Just Jarvis, or Mr. Jarvis, if you will. Miss Stark is very fond of your brother.”
“Is she?” Steve asks, relieved.
“Yes. It seems he made an impression of her from the first day. Master Tony’s taken to whining that she likes young James more than she likes him.”
Steve laughs, nodding. “I know the feeling. They seem to be getting along so well.”
“Indeed,” Jarvis says.
- - - - - - - - - -
Things don’t change very much after that.
Bucky and Pepper are still tied at the hip, so much so that Steve starts to wonder if his brother might have crush on her. But when he asks him, Bucky just shakes his head, and climbs on the couch next to him.
“No, it’s not like that,” he says, serious as that first day, and Steve wants to laugh at how grown up he sounds. “She said me’n her are like-- like her brother Tony an’ his best friend Ro... Roadee? She says we’re ‘bros’. Wassat mean, Stebe?”
“It means that you’re the best kind of best friends. That you’re close like family, even though you’re not related. You understand?” Steve asks, but going by the bright smile on his brother’s face, he didn’t need to.
“Yeah,” Bucky whispers in awe. “We’re bros,” he says, and this time, Steve can’t hold back his laughter because gosh, this is adorable.
September passes without a hitch, then October, and that’s when Bucky announces one day during dinner that, "me ‘n Pep wanna have matchin’ costumes for Hall’ween, Steeb."
When Steve asks him what they want to be, though, he just shrugs.
“We dunno,” he mumbles around a mouthful of Spaghetti.
“Have you asked her?”
Bucky nods. “She tol’ me we could talk t’morrow. Can ya take me t’school?”
“Sure,” Steve smiles.
And that’s how he ends up meeting Tony.
Because it’s not Jarvis waiting with Pepper next morning. It’s a tan, lean man in a fitted suit-- that obviously costs more than Steve makes in half a year-- with tousled hair, big brown eyes, and the most beautiful smile Steve’s ever seen.
“This is Tony,” Pepper announces, and oh, right. Her brother, Steve remembers.
“Wow, you’re hot,” Tony says, and Steve’s heart skips a beat at the leering grin aimed his way.
“Um, th-thanks,” he stutters, and oh god, the children are still right there. He definitely shouldn’t be so aroused by his little brother’s best friend’s brother-- who he’s just met, no less. “I’m Steve. Steve Rogers.”
"I figured,” Tony’s still smiling, and then looks down at his phone. “Oh crap... right, I’m gonna have to go now, princess,” he bends down to kiss Pepper’s head. “Gotta go be an adult and do boring adult things. But how ‘bout you and I and Bucky and Mr. Rogers go for ice cream after school to talk about your costumes?”
Pepper cheers her approval, while Bucky looks up at Steve and oh no, not the puppy dog eyes.
“Are you guys free?” Tony asks,
“We are,” Steve sighs, “but--”
“Great, see you back here as soon as they’re out, yeah?”
Steve just nods because it’s too late to say no, and after both kids are inside, Tony turns to him and smiles.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to spring things on you-- I know I fucking hate it when they do it to me,” he smiles, ignoring the glares he gets from other parents at his language.
“It’s fine,” Steve tells him. “I just don’t... I wouldn’t want to bother you.”
"Hey, no, stop," Tony shakes his head. "The kids need time to come up with a kick ass costume, right?
“And to be honest,” Tony leans in closer, lifting a hand to trail it back down Steve's chest. "I wouldn't mind spending some more time with you, Mr. Rogers."
Steve's pretty sure he's still blushing something fierce, but he tries not to let any more of his arousal show. "Alright," he whispers, and Tony turns half lidded eyes back up to him.
"Wonderful," he whispers, "it's a play date." And then the next moment he pulls away, grinning playfully as he walks back to the open car waiting for him. "See you later, gorgeous."
Oh, Steve’s pretty sure in trouble.
- - - - - - - - - -
By the time said ice cream play date is over, Steve knows he’s in trouble.
Pepper and Bucky chatter excitedly all through their ice cream and the cleaning that inevitably takes place after, and then they trade costume ideas until they finally decide-- with a bit of “super genius advice”, as Tony’d called it-- to dress up as Black Widow and Hawkeye.
And throughout the whole thing, Tony won’t stop staring at Steve.
He’s charming and patient and funny with the kids-- which just makes him so much more attractive-- but it’s his eyes that Steve can’t stop thinking about afterward, dark and warm as they meet his own across the table. He thinks about them all through the night, and then the next day during work and after Bucky comes home.
Yeah, he’s screwed.
It doesn’t help that Bucky still talks about Pepper every day, only now he starts to mention how Tony’s been dropping her off a lot more these days, and how he’s always nice to Bucky when he sees him. He tells Steve about the super cool red car Tony has, Steeb! It’s like a racin’ car, and Pep said he should get a purple one, an’ he said she can’ even drive yet!
After that, Steve figures it wouldn’t hurt too much to take Bucky to school himself more often.
Tony grins in surprise when he sees him again the following morning, and something about seeing all four of them with smiles on their faces makes Steve’s heart beat just a little bit faster for the rest of the day.
When Halloween arrives, and he takes Bucky to school in the finest Hawkeye costume he’d put together-- Natasha managed to find a replica suit in Bucky’s exact size, and Clint delivered on his personal mission to find "the most kick-ass bow and arrow set worthy of our little superhero"-- Tony's waiting for them again, with a whistle of appreciation that makes Steve blush even though he knows it’s not meant for him.
“Aren’t we all just the best lookin’ foursome this side of town?” Tony crows, and Steve laughs when the kids strike dramatic poses before they wave goodbye and run inside. “So what’re you planning on being tonight?” he then asks Steve, “Sexy firefighter? Sexy nurse? Sexy cop?”
“Does everything have to be sexy?” Steve asks, but he can’t stop blushing, and Tony’s eyes really are so much more beautiful when he’s smiling, all bright and crinkled at the corners.
“If you’re the one in costume, I don’t see how it wouldn’t be,” Tony shrugs, and laughs when Steve covers his face with his hands.
“I’m, uh-- I’m just gonna take Bucky trick-or-treating around the neighborhood,” Steve finally says, when his face feels normal again. “What about you?”
Tony shrugs. “Not sure people in my building go for these types of things,” he says.
“You could, uh... You could come with us?” Steve blurts out, because Tony’s eyes suddenly aren’t as bright anymore, and the thought of Pepper sitting home instead of being out just feels wrong. “If you want, obviously? And if you’re not busy. It’s only Brooklyn, so it’s pretty safe, you don’t have to worry about--”
“Okay,” Tony says, and it comes out like a sigh of relief.
“We’ll do it. God, you’re cute when you ramble,” Tony says, “and at this point, I have no problem saying that I’d really fucking like to spend more time with you.”
“Me too,” Steve admits, and doesn’t care that he’s probably grinning like an idiot.
“Wonderful,” Tony says, and winks as he walks away, hips swaying much more than Steve thinks they usually do, but hey.
He’s not complaining.
To say that Halloween night goes well is an understatement.
Bucky and Pepper are as adorable in their costumes as they are any other day, and watching them charm the pants off every house they go to makes Steve happier than he’s been in a long time.
Well, having Tony there makes all of it even better just by being there. He’s so good with his sister and Bucky all night, and he jokes and flirts with Steve and asks him about his art-- Steve keeps it short and simple for the moment, then tells him about what Pepper had said about his aversion to Picasso, and Tony laughs so hard, he has to lean into Steve to keep from falling.
But Steve’s favorite part of the night is when he asks Tony about what he does, because the brunet’s eyes go wide and bright as he goes off about robotics and engineering and other things Steve couldn’t even begin to understand. He can only stand there and take in the way Tony just lights up, like what he’s saying is the most fascinating thing in the world.
When they end the night trading numbers, and Steve can’t keep the smile off his face as they walk back home, he knows something’s happening. He knows it’s still new and he knows it’s too soon-- they hardly know about each other, and even though the attraction is there, the truth is that they’re barely friends-- but there’s a spark Steve hasn’t felt many times in his life, and he’s learned by now that not following your heart isn’t the best when you only live once.
He wants to see where this can go. He wants to know if it can go anywhere.
- - - - - - - - - - -
The next morning, he walks up the school with his hand around Bucky’s, and his stomach in knots. But like always, seeing Tony and Pepper by the gates eases some of the butterflies flittering around inside him.
“Morning,” he calls out, returning the smiles they both give him in reply. They’re quick to say their goodbyes to the children, and then, by some silent agreement, they both make their way over to Tony’s car.
“Pep was a nightmare to get into bed last night,” Tony begins, shaking his head fondly. “She spent a whole hour separating every damn piece of candy in her bag-- put them all in lines, fucking military precision and everything, only to dump them back in the bag, my god.”
Steve chuckles. “It took me two to convince Bucky that keeping his candy in bed with him wasn’t the smartest idea, so I'd say you had it pretty good last night.”
“I really did,” Tony says, the words soft and gentle, and so happy that Steve breathes out a fuck it and--
“Can I ask you something?” he asks.
Tony stills just enough for Steve to notice, but his smile doesn’t go away. “Ask away.”
“And you gotta tell me if I’m outta line."
Tony just nods.
“I, uh,” he stammers, but then he looks at Tony’s eyes and just like that, some little, tiny part of Steve just knows he’ll never see eyes more beautiful than his.
“... Sorry, I didn’t get that,” Tony says, but now he’s smiling Steve’s favorite smile, the one with the beautiful curve of his lips and those crinkly eyes, so Steve knows he definitely did.
“You’re gonna make me say it again?” he asks with a smile of his own, because he figures it’s a good sign that he wasn’t shot down immediately.
Tony just keeps smiling. “Yep."
“Alright,” Steve says, and squares his shoulders. “Go on a date with me?”
“What?” Tony says, and ignores every single glare currently aimed his way.
“There are children,” Steve says.
“Pepper hears me all the time,” Tony scoffs. “She knows she's not supposed to repeat it. If these kids don’t, it’s not my fucking problem.”
“Y'know, I really like the way you say my name,” the brunet purrs, and when his tongue peeks out to wet his lips, Steve wants to push him up against his car and taste them himself.
Not yet, though.
“I really like the way you do a lot of things,” he says instead, and Tony’s smile turns wicked.
“Oooooh, tell me more,” he waggles his eyebrows, but Steve shakes his head.
“Gotta save something for the date.”
“Believe me,” Tony winks, “I’ve got plenty saved up for that, too.”
Steve can hardly wait.
- - - - - - - - - - -
It takes him a couple of days to figure out how to tell Bucky, but eventually he just sits him down and does it.
“Wassa date, Stebe?” Bucky asks.
“It’s when two people who like each other go out for dinner a couple of times, and get to know each other better.”
“Like when we went for ice cream with Pep an’ Tony?”
“Yeah,” Steve smiles, “something like that. Except it’s just me and Tony.”
Bucky narrows his eyes thoughtfully, and then he nods decisively. “Okay,” is all he says.
Steve can’t help but pull him into his lap after that. “And you know what that means?” he asks.
“It means you might be spending a lot more time with Pepper from here on out,” Steve announces.
“Stebe,” Bucky says, rolling his eyes, “we already do that. We’re bros.”
Steve laughs until tears stream down his face, and every breath after that feels like a new beginning.