Let's Talk Fanfic: Bucky's Characterization in "The Thirteen Letters"

"Let's Talk Fanfic" is a series that's basically me ranting about (and sometimes analyzing) one of my first literary loves: fanfiction.

Almost always, fanfic is found and read online. Whether it's throwing it back to LiveJournal days, praying you don't get a virus on Fanfiction.Net, hanging out alone on Wattpad, or sifting through Archive of Our Own tags like everyone else, you're probably going to binge that 70k slow burn on your laptop, tablet, or smartphone.

I always use AO3. At least, almost always.

If I want to go back and reread (for the 12th time) the Not Easily Conquered series by dropdeaddream and WhatAreFear—the amazing canon-divergence AU in which Bucky dies in The First Avenger but Steve never does—I can do it in the physical. Yeah, last summer I took three PDFs someone had made for each work in the series and got them bound as literal, physical books. They're on my nightstand right now two feet away, waiting to be opened again. All this to say, Not Easily Conquered is a pretty big deal not only to me but to everyone else in the Captain America fandom. The middle part, "The Thirteen Letters," is one of the best pieces of literature I've ever read. I'm not trying to be funny. I mean that.

"The Thirteen Letters" takes place during The First Avenger when Bucky (and later, Steve with Bucky) is in the war. He writes Steve letters. He never sends them.

I thought about that fic a lot after the first time I read it. Now, a year and a half later, I still think about it almost every day. That sounds strange until you actually read some of the letters. The authors of this series have a serious gift for language, and I think about their writing like I think about Richard Siken's.

The whole series screwed me up pretty bad. It's heartbreaking, start to finish. But "The Thirteen Letters" gutted me like nothing else.

I'm a huge sucker for pining, selfish/savage love, war stories, codependency, flowery writing, and angst. And hell if this third of NEC doesn't match this list point for point. Above all else, I think "The Thirteen Letters" in particular screwed me up the most because of how dropdeaddream and WhatAreFears portray Bucky during the war.

This Bucky is like something out of my deepest fiction desires. The only other character I’ve found with this kind of characterization (desperate and greedy, in love so over his head) is Lolita's Humbert Humbert. And we all know how that story goes. I spent over a year breaking Humbert open as a character, so I know selfish love when I see it. And boy, do I see it in Bucky.

The thing is: He has all of these qualities but also a strange innocence, something Humbert never had. Through his letters, we see exactly how possessive Bucky's love for Steve is, how ruthlessly he pines.

The part about NEC that I didn't mention is that these letters are recovered after Bucky falls from the train. They are kept under lock and key for decades, unknown to everyone except for Howard and Peggy. Eventually, the letters are released.

Bucky never wrote Steve's name, but his direct address is obvious. When the public first get their hands on the letters, they're highly censored. The most censored letter, number ten, is Bucky at his most savage:

Bone of my bones. Were you taken from my rib? You must have been, or maybe I was made from yours. And God damn, I want it. I want back inside you. I want you now, same as I wanted you before, prettier than hell even with a bloodied nose and split knuckles. Don’t care you were smaller. Liked it, even — same as I like you this way too. You make me hungry. You understand? You make me hungry. That mouth pink like spun sugar, though it doesn’t stop you from talking fit to cut anyone down to bits with your angry words. A spitfire since you learned how to speak, and I’ll tell you something, it’s hell to love a fighter.

Every letter is like this, its own kind of raw, selfish, and intense. They're brutal and honest and fierce, desperately fierce. Through reading his letters, we see Bucky change without changing at all. The truth of the matter is that he always loved Steve like this, always had this savagery in him, he just didn’t know it. "The Thirteen Letters" is how he grows to know it. We are learning about Bucky's character at the same time Bucky is learning about himself. The letters are his deepest thoughts and his truest confessions.

Maybe that's why "The Thirteen Letters" has stuck with me like this. I can't get it out of my head, any day of the week. Sometimes out of the blue it will hit me and I'll think—She's your true north. I know what that means, because you're mine. Or—How long have I loved you for? Womb to tomb, sweetheart. Or—I won't be in the history books; that's for you. But I loved you first. As long as they get that right, I don't care what they say.

The whole of Not Easily Conquered is worth the read. But the series isn't about Captain America, not really. It's about Bucky, Bucky's letters, and the passionate, fearless love he put in them.

Feature photo edit by thunderbug on Tumblr.