Steve is beautiful.
Tony knows that people don’t tend to call men beautiful, but it fits Steve so well. From his blond hair to his blue eyes to the strength of his will and the subtle snark of his humor, everything about Steve is beautiful.
Unfortunately Steve will never know that Tony thinks he’s beautiful.
Steve is aware that Tony protects him, though since he doesn’t know that Tony exists he doesn’t know who is doing it or why.
When Red Skull invades the school, Tony sees how upset it makes Steve and makes it his mission to take the Skull down. So at night, when everyone is sleeping, he gets inside of Skull’s robo-tentacle-machine. Technology is easy. He thinks it has something to do with who he was before. By the time he and the robo-tentacle-machine are done with Skull, Skull is little more than a red smear on the pavement.
Steve seems disturbed by the ferocity there (“We could have just imprisoned him somewhere,” Tony overhears him saying to Sam, later) but also grateful that Skull will never hurt anyone again, and puzzled over who could have done this.
Tony is fine with that. He knows his methods are extreme. But he just … there’s something inside him, lurking, waiting to get out. Protecting Steve - protecting the campus - is at least a productive way to channel those urges.
Days later he finds himself wandering the campus at night. He feels restless and he’s not entirely certain why. After a while, aimlessly walking and sometimes even zoning out only to come back to himself and discover he’s halfway across campus, he finds himself inside Steve’s bedroom. He’s startled by this, though he shouldn’t be.
He reaches out to touch Steve’s cheek. Of course, his hand goes right through. He’s not sure why he tried to touch him. Unless he’s really concentrating he can’t touch anyone or anything, and even then technology is the easiest for him to interact with.
Through the contact, the ethereal brush of flesh against … whatever Tony is now, he can feel Steve’s dream. It’s hectic, but oddly pleasant. A man in red, white, and blue body armor with a shield fighting alongside a man inside red and gold robotic armor. Tony can feel the pleasure thrumming through Steve in the dream, the affection for the man in the metal suit. There is something terribly familiar about all of this, and Tony can’t quite put his finger on it ...
But it doesn’t last. Tony knew it wouldn’t. He knows that he is cold, freezing, and that it’s unpleasant for people. Steve obviously feels it because his dream shifts to ice and cold and drowning. Tony yanks his hand back and hesitates for a moment. Steve makes a loud, whining, distressed noise, and that makes Tony’s decision for him.
He concentrates so that he can touch and shakes Steve’s shoulder hard. Steve sits up with a gasp and for one moment Tony could swear that Steve’s eyes meet his, that they are actually looking at each other.
Then the lights come on and Steve’s focus shifts to the man in the doorway.
“Are you okay? I heard a noise,” Bucky asks.
“Yeah. Thanks, Buck,” Steve says. He rubs a hand over his face. “Just a weird dream. That’s all.”
Bucky turns the light off and leaves. Tony watches Steve until Steve goes back to sleep, then leaves. Until Steve needs him again he’ll go back to just being a ghost in the background of Steve’s life.