Steve tossed and turned on his cot in the empty medical barracks. Dr. Erskine had told him to try and get a good night’s sleep, as the procedure was going to be incredibly taxing, but his mind just wouldn’t stop whirring. The night seemed quieter than usual; the sounds of the camp were oddly muted. It made his own thoughts seem louder, and he could have sworn his racing heart produced an echo. His stomach roiled with nerves and excitement - tomorrow, everything was going to change, probably forever.
Steve was excited, but also terrified. He hadn’t voiced anything other than enthusiasm for fear of this opportunity being taken away, and that was the last thing he wanted. He wanted this procedure more than anything he’d ever wanted before in his life, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t afraid.
His whole body was going to change in practically an instant. If he understood Dr. Erskine’s explanation of the procedure correctly, the whole thing would be over in just a few minutes. That such a drastic and momentous change would take such a short amount of time felt wrong, and was difficult to wrap his mind around.
Every other physical change he’d experienced in his life had been gradual. He’d eased into adulthood with a slowness that had been agonizing as a teenager. Steve wracked his mind trying to think, to find something in his life experience he could relate this to, but the only abrupt physical change he could remember having was a truly dreadful haircut once when he was 11. But hair grew back, and if all went according to plan, this change would be permanent.
Try as he might, he couldn’t quite picture what he was going to look like this time tomorrow, and that was utterly terrifying.
He’d certainly imagined having a different body before - a bigger one, a stronger one. One that worked the way bodies were supposed to instead of seeming hell bent on killing him. Of course he thought about it. Of course he’d looked at Bucky and other boys and imagined having a body that looked and worked like theirs.
He’d be lying if he said he didn’t want that desperately.
But at the same time, this body was his, and he was used to it. He knew who he was when he looked in the mirror - even if he didn’t like what he saw. Would he even recognize the man looking back after tomorrow? Would it still be his face? Would he look at his own reflection and still know himself? Or would he feel like he was possessing someone else, like a lost and hopeless ghost?
Steve let himself entertain a degree of vanity for a moment - what if he hated the way he looked after? He didn’t particularly like the way he looked now, but what if this procedure turned him freakish? Ill proportioned? He knew from personal experience that being big and strong didn’t mean you were easy on the eyes. He didn’t find himself terribly handsome, but he thought he looked decent enough. Certainly better than a lot of the fellows twice his size who seemed to find his existence personally offensive.
Steve’s thought wandered to Agent Carter. He’d liked the way she smiled at him after he got the camp flag. If it all went badly, would she still smile at him? Or would her gaze be full of pity like the women Buck kept trying to set him up with? He wasn’t going through this for the dames, not by a long shot, but was it too much to ask that his chances not get worse because his body was about to become a science experiment?
Steve rolled onto his side, trying to get comfortable. His vanity wasn’t what was important he reminded himself. Nor was his longing to experience the world with the physical ease everyone else took as given. What was important was what a successful result of this experiment would mean for the war effort.
He thought about the Nuremberg Laws he’d read about in the Washington Post a few years earlier, and the fearful whispers of his Jewish neighbors who had suddenly stopped receiving correspondence from their relatives in Europe. In his gut, Steve knew the reality overseas was much worse than news cables were telling.
Steve thought about the war his father died in. How they thought it was the war to end all wars. How it still haunted an entire generation.
He wondered if this war would be the same for his.
He thought about the European allies who had lost so much to that last great war only to turn around and find themselves embroiled in another horrifically bloody conflict. Steve couldn’t help but feel shame it had taken America this long to get involved. If this super soldier business worked, if it could win the war and end the fighting and suffering, if there was even a fraction of a chance, then he’d do it and damned be the consequences to himself.
He wasn’t important, but winning the war was.
He took a deep breath. Well, tried to. His lungs protesting the action was not a new feeling. He’d never quite understood the phrase “easy as breathing” as his own body seemed to labor over every inhalation. Steve’s eyes widened as he realized that tomorrow he would understand. He smiled and touched his chest where his heart beat out an irregular tempo. Maybe he wouldn’t come out of this as good looking as Bucky, but Erskine seemed confident he’d feel better. That all of his health conditions would be swept away as if they’d never existed.
He decided, that maybe he was allowed to be a little bit selfish. He was allowed to hope for success for reasons beyond helping other people. Wanting this for himself didn’t make him a bad person. Right?
Steve sighed, and rolled over to reach under the bed. His duffle slid easily when he pulled - it didn’t have much in it - and he quickly located a notebook and pencil inside. The ambient lights from the camp barely illuminated the blank page he flipped to, but he was used to not being able to quite see what he was writing.
He quickly scrawled “things I am looking forward to after the procedure:” across the top. Steve paused to think for a moment, and then started writing.
- Breathing without pain
- No more back pain
- No more chest pain
- No more stomach pain
Steve crossed all those out and replaced them with “not being in constant pain or discomfort.” Then he continued:
- Running for any length of time without wheezing
- Being able to enjoy the snow without an asthma attack
- Going swimming
Steve crossed out those bullets as well and wrote “breathing” below them, as that summarized what he’d put down nicely as well as encompassed so much more.
Looking at what he’d just written, Steve took a moment to consider how much pain or discomfort he really was in on a daily basis. He almost didn’t think about it anymore it was such a constant companion - what would it be like to have all that be gone? To wake up feeling refreshed and full of energy, go about one’s day free of physical limitations, and then go to bed without a single twinge or ache? Steve couldn’t even begin to imagine, but it sounded like heaven.
He went back to writing.
- Reading a book with small print
- Drawing without needing to squint
Steve smiled, thinking that perhaps his art would improve if he could see the page properly. He was already talented, he did get into art school after all, but if the energy he currently used to simply see could be spent on other things instead - well wouldn’t that be something?
- Not having to change or cancel plans with Bucky because I’m tired or sick
Steve’s heart clenched at the thought of his friend who was God knows where laying his life on the line. He couldn’t count the number of times he and Buck had planned to do something, only for Steve’s health to get in the way. Every time he would try to convince Bucky to go without him, and every time Bucky would decide to stay in with Steve instead. Steve took a shuddering breath trying to calm his roiling emotions. Given the bloody swathe in humanity this war was cutting, he might never see Bucky again, regardless of the results of tomorrow’s procedure. Steve aggressively turned that thought away - he would see Bucky again and he would cross this item off the list.
Steve’s head and eyes ached from writing in the dark, but he felt a little calmer. Composing a list of things he was looking forward to had helped curb his anxiety over becoming a lab rat in the morning. With a pang he realized that, after all this, the procedure might not even work. He might stay exactly the same, or get even worse. He might wind up dead if things really went to hell. Stark and Erskine were brilliant, but even the smartest men can get it wrong.
Steve sighed and nipped those thoughts in the bud. He would just have to have faith. He would put his physical well-being into the hands of these men and trust that they’d see him through to the other side. That the transformation they would work on his body would be everything he could ever have hoped for and more. That when all was said and done, every distant dream on this list would be a reality.
Feeling a little more settled, Steve closed his notebook and placed it back in his duffel. After making sure the bag was tucked neatly under his bed, he rolled over and pulled the thin blanket back over his shoulders. He closed his eyes, deciding to try and get that sleep Dr. Erskine recommended. Tomorrow, Steve’s life was going to change forever. He couldn’t wait.