Marcel pushed her out of the way.
All four of them had been stupid, settling down for the evening without checking the area thoroughly enough, without thinking to check the ground itself, but none of them had been as foolish as Pieck. She had forgotten about the mission for a moment and expressed her desire to get out of her titan to spend time with her friends. Marcel said that it was fine if she got out for a little while, and she - foolish, hopeful, naive - had allowed him to convince her.
Then the titan rose out of the ground beneath their feet. They moved to run, but Pieck's legs gave out beneath her, the titan reached for her, and Marcel made the decision that would cost him his life.
If he were there with her, Marcel would say that it wasn't Pieck's fault. He would say that he made his decision because he didn't want her to die.
He would have been wrong. It was her fault, no matter how she tried to spin in. Because she had been the one to shift out of her titan, just for one reckless, ignorant moment. Because her legs had been the ones to give out.
Because Marcel pushed her out of the way.
Annie wanted to go home. Bertolt nodded along as she made her case, a focused expression on his face. Probably growing more convinced with every passing second. Meanwhile, Pieck felt helpless in the face of reality, a reality that her comrades seemed to be forgetting. She didn't want to be the one to tell them and force them forward, but... if not her, who? It still felt like she should stand by and wait until Marcel took the lead, but Marcel was dead.
Marcel was dead because of her, and if she didn't do something soon, then Bertolt and Annie would follow him.
"We need to continue the mission," Pieck said. The words made a cold numbness spread through her, from the tips of her fingers, through her head and chest, right down to her treacherous legs. It reminded her that they would all be a lot safer when she got back into her titan. It was harder to speak in titan form though, and right now, she needed to be able to speak, to make her comrades see reason.
She'd just have to be quick about it.
"How?" Annie demanded. Her expression, normally so closed off, was open and vulnerable for once, highlighted by blue eyes that were wide and bright with fear. "How can we do this without Marcel? He was the one who was supposed to-"
"-I can destroy the inner gate," Pieck interrupted. "If it's anything like the diagrams, it won't be easy, but my titan's dexterous enough to take it down. Other than that, we just follow the original plan."
Bertolt would kick a hole in the outer gate, Annie would summon titans for the attack, and Pieck would do what she could to fill the hole she had made in their group by creating a hole in Wall Maria itself. They could do it. They had to do it.
"...Are you sure?" Bertolt asked. He took a hesitant step closer to Pieck, feet dragging heavily across the grass beneath them as he moved.
"She isn't," Annie said, refusing to tear her eyes away from Pieck. "She can't be. We weren't meant to change the plan, and she has no way to know that none of us will die trying to take down the wall, or during what comes after. I don't..." The words got caught in Annie's throat as tears started to glimmer in her eyes. "I don't want to die here, Pieck. I want... I need to see my father again."
Pieck's chest ached. She wanted to tell Annie that she understood, that she would give just about anything to see her own father again. At another time, she would have done exactly that and stood back while Marcel did the hard work of convincing her. But Marcel was gone, and unless someone stepped up right now, it would mean the end for all of them.
Pieck hesitated. She wanted to be kind, but if she stopped to comfort her friend, if she allowed herself to be too sympathetic, her strength of will might falter. If her strength of will faltered, it would give Annie the window that she needed to turn them around and lead them all to their friends.
Reality was cruel. Marcel would have been able to find a way to open their eyes without being cruel, but Pieck wasn't Marcel. She had no clue how to temper their harsh world into something kinder, how to bring it to light in a gentle fashion.
Pieck didn't want to be cruel.
But Annie and Bertolt would die if they didn't face reality.
She would rather be cruel to her friends and see them survive than kill them with her kindness.
"So you'd rather turn back and die in Marley?" Pieck demanded, voice dropping into something low and cold.
Annie frowned. "Our terms only just started. We still have-"
"-That's not what I meant," Pieck cut in. "If we go back now, we'll have lost the Jaw titan and accomplished nothing, Marley will replace us faster than we can blink."
Annie took a step back, her hands balling into fists by her sides. "You don't know that," she argued. Her voice sounded so solid, but her eyes betrayed her, glistening fiercely as she glanced over at Bertolt, who stood perfectly still, horror plastered onto his face. She only looked at him for a moment before turning her attention back to Pieck and continuing, "It would be wasteful, and they'd need other candidates to replace us with. Right now, there's only Porco."
"You think they couldn't come up with replacements quickly?" Pieck countered. "There are plenty of Eldians who would step up and take our place. They might not be as well trained as us, but they might prefer to deal with that over keeping failures around. Or maybe they'll keep us locked up underground until they've brought our replacements up to speed. Either way, we are expendable, and we won't be forgiven if we turn back down."
Annie opened her mouth. When no words came out, she took a slow step forward and raised her fists.
Pieck forced herself to step forward as well. "I don't want to fight you, Annie. But if I need to to keep you alive, I will."
"No one needs to fight!" Bertolt exclaimed, drawing a step closer. "We can just talk this out and-"
"And go with her plan?" Annie snarled. "And hope that Pieck can step in for Marcel, pray that we won't get eaten and might get to see our families again?"
"Yes," Pieck said, finally allowing her voice to drop into something softer. "We knew from the start that we might not get out of this alive, Annie. But if we continue the mission, there's a chance that you'll get to see your father again, to stay with him. If we go home now, you'll be lucky to spend a few minutes with him before they pass on your titan. And I don't want to lose another friend."
The world felt still as Pieck and Annie stared each other down. Finally, after a moment that felt like an eternity, Annie lowered her fists.
Pieck nodded. "We need to keep moving," she said, staring up and forward, at the glimmer that she thought she could see on the horizon. "I'll shift and stay in my titan until we've taken down my wall. You two, climb on my back and stay there."
Bertolt shifted uneasily. "You make it sound like..."
"If we're going to do this, there's no point in dragging it out," Annie muttered.
Pieck nodded. "We're making a straight break for the walls."
In the end, it was easy to destroy Wall Maria.
Bertolt created a hole in the outer wall. Pieck waited for the titans to spread throughout the devil's city, spreading chaos and devastation in their wake, before beginning her charge. She ran straight at the inner gate, her momentum giving her extra force as she bodyslammed into it. The gate trembled beneath her weight for only one second before giving in and collapsing completely. From there, she began grappling at the edges of the hole, grasping great chunks of stone and tearing them free as fast as she possibly could. By the time she backed off, pieces of rubble were falling out on their home and the hole was big enough for even the largest of titans to crawl through.
The entire process of destroying the inner gate took no more than three minutes.
It was easy to destroy Wall Maria.
It was not easy to watch what came after.
All around her, people were suffering. People taken from their idyllic lives and thrust into the depths of poverty. Refugees desperate for any means of survival left out to starve because the walls simply could not afford to feed them. Children separated from their parents through one means or the other. Death and destruction as far as the eye could see.
Pieck had known that this was going to happen. It was the same thing that always happened when Marley decided to move against an enemy. The only real difference here was that instead of blaming the country that was at fault, the oblivious people of the walls placed it on her and Bertolt. The Colossal and the Cart, or as the people of the walls called in, the Mule Titan.
She had known what was going to happen and had chosen to see it through anyway. None of the events playing out around her were a surprise. It wasn't even that different from some of the things she had seen while serving Marley prior to coming to Paradis. Yet it was different. There was a difference between walking away after fulfilling her mission and actually hiding amongst the people who she had hurt.
People, not devils. Pieck had never been completely convinced by Marley's propaganda, but she never questioned it too strongly either. But as she hid among the refugees of Wall Rose, she was forced to see the gaunt, haunted face of her victims, desperately desiring to rest, yet forcing themselves to persist in the face of despair. Human. Parents who already had so little going with even less so that their children could eat. Human. Total strangers offering a smile, a kind word, or a spare coin or piece of bread to a trio of children tucked in with the refugees. Human.
It was within the first few weeks after the fall of Wall Maria that doubt began to creep in. However, it was later on that something truly shifted within her.
The announcement spread like wildfire through the town they were staying in. All able-bodied adult refugees were to report to the Survey Corps to participate in an operation to reclaim Wall Maria.
That night, as she, Bertolt, and Annie sat between their cots in their hostel, Pieck whispered, "It's a population cull. There's no way that they can take Wall Maria back, and they know it. The crown's just getting rid of the mouths they can't feed."
"Obviously," Annie murmured. "I'm surprised that something like this didn't happen sooner."
Cold discomfort draped itself over Pieck's shoulder. She tried not to let it show. Bertolt wasn't as successful, wrapping the blanket wrapped around his shoulder tighter and staring down at his feet. "I suppose it makes sense that Paradisians would do something like this to their own people," he murmured.
Something twisted in Pieck's stomach, compelling her to say the words that she knew were better kept to herself. Words that Marley would loathe to hear from her lips. Marley wasn't there though - only the friends she trusted with her life. As such, she allowed herself to say, "This isn't because they're Paradisian."
Bertolt glanced up at her while Annie narrowed her eyes. "It isn't?" she prompted.
"No," Pieck said. "So many people to feed when they had just lost so many resources... If Marley ever faced a disaster of this scale, I'm sure they'd do something similar. Maybe even worse."
"Maybe," Annie admitted. "But when you say it like that, it sounds a lot like you're sympathetic for the devils."
Pieck smiled weakly. "Maybe I am. But am I supposed to think that you aren't, after seeing all this?"
"...I also want to see my father again," Annie said.
"Me too," Bertolt whispered.
"I know," Pieck said. "I'm not saying that we should abandon the plan. For now, we just need to keep going." They were making progress in their plan to learn more about the Paradisian royal family. If they just kept on with that plan, their path would surely become true.
"You aren't saying it yet," Annie said, something shadowed and painful hiding in her eyes. No - not just painful. Angry.
Pieck swallowed heavily. That was right - Annie had wanted to give up on the plan before Wall Maria even fell. Before anyone died. Seeing Pieck falter now, after they'd all gotten so much more red on their ledger, must have felt like salt in a wound. It must have hurt.
You had to be alive to hurt.
"We would have died if we went back to Marley," Pieck said. "You're right; I don't want to hurt anyone else. But I also won't stop the plan unless you both agree. I won't let this be for nothing."
Annie nodded slowly. "But if we all agree... you will let us stop?"
Pieck stared at Annie for a long moment before glancing at Bertolt. He was staring at her with a fraught mix of hope and fear.
"I will," Pieck finally said, turning her gaze back to Annie's. "But we still won't be able to go back to Marley. If we stop, we'll need to figure out another plan if you ever want to see your father again."
Assuming Marley didn't take their inaction as a sign of treachery and preemptively dismiss them as traitors. Pieck's stomach wrenched at the thought, her mind turning to her own father.
Annie looked away. "I want to continue the mission," she said.
Pieck nodded, her heart catching onto the words that Annie hadn't been able to bring herself to say.
There was no stopping the passage of time. Little changed in the time that the warriors spent among the refugees. Little, and yet so very much. They kept to the shadows as they scuttled around the walls. They followed the right people, made sure they were at the right places at the right times, and eventually learned that the true ruler of Paradis was not the king of the walls, but a family called Reiss.
The information they gleaned in the darkness was vital to the mission. However, it was what they witnessed in the light of day that had the potential to change the mission.
Just as everything stayed the same for the warriors, so did things stagnate for those refugees who hadn't been made to sacrifice their lives in the vain attempt to reclaim Wall Maria. Some managed to get back on their feet and start their lives anew, the wealthy and the lucky, but for every one individual who experienced such fortune, there were ten left to wallow. They lived in the same hostels that they had resided in since the farm, subsided on what meager portions they were given, and spent hours upon end working in fields and doing other manual labor.
It was nothing that they hadn't seen before, but there was something to be said for exposure. Every day, the hopeless faces of the people trying so desperately to find something to hold onto wore Pieck down a little more. Every day, she saw the last flickers of resolve in her companion's eyes grow further and further away.
As far as sleeping assignments went, Pieck was lucky. Her cot was right next to a window. Annie's was right next to it and got to reap some of the benefits, but she got most of the direct light. Pieck was curled up at the top of her cot, sitting on top of her pillow, and utilizing the day's last fading rays of light to read the newspaper when Annie and Bertolt approached her. The matching expressions on their faces - somber and trying hard to hide fright - immediately gave her an idea of what this may be about. Even so, Pieck turned her gaze back to her paper after a quick glance at her companions.
This was their choice. If they wanted to have the conversation that she suspected they did, she would leave it up to them to initiate it.
Several minutes passed by. Pieck finished reading the page that she was on and carefully flicked to the next one. She got halfway through it before Annie whispered, voice firm, but with the distinct sense that she was inches away from faltering, "I'm not giving up on seeing my father again."
Pieck folded her newspaper up and bent down to push to tuck it under her bed. She had borrowed it from a kindly old woman she'd befriended; it wouldn't do to leave it and risk getting it damaged. Once it was safe and sound, she straightened back up and looked Annie in the eyes. "I never thought that you would," she said.
Annie opened her mouth. Closed it. It was as she was pursing her lips that Bertolt reached out to place a hand on her shoulder. She didn't spare it so much as a passing glance, but it did seem to give her the second wind that she needed, for she went on to whisper, "We don't want to destroy another wall. If there's another way to find the Founding Titan, we want to find it."
Warmth rushed through Pieck's chest. Relief, joy, pride. She wanted nothing more than to lean into the feeling, to grab Annie and Bertolt in her arms and hold them tight, to tell them how proud she was of them for making such a decision. But she couldn't. She was the leader of their group, and that meant that she had to make sure that they understood the implications of what they were saying, the risks and consequences that they may end up facing.
Marcel would have found a way to phrase it more kindly than she was going to, but that was from her perspective. In that moment, she wondered. Did Marcel ever feel like he was being cruel? Like he had to be in for their own good?
"What if we can't find the Founding Titan without destroying another wall?" Pieck whispered.
Annie frowned. However, it was Bertolt who spoke up this time. "Y-You don't know that it will turn out like that."
"You're right, I don't," Pieck acquiesced. "But if we take too long, Marley will assume something's happened. They'll either think we've died or turned traitor, and once that happens, we won't have an easy way home."
Annie looked at the ground. She didn't move as she said, "Then let them think we're dead. As long as we keep our heads low and don't shift, they'll have no reason to think we betrayed them."
Pieck nodded. "That's-"
"It doesn't mean that I'm giving up," Annie added, her voice taking on a sharp, bitter tone. She looked up to meet her eyes, and the intensity of the piercing blue left Pieck with no choice but to assume that she was telling the truth. "I will see my father again, no matter what it takes. But I'm not going to destroy another wall."
"Me either," Bertolt added. "This was... everything we've seen..." He glanced downward and began wringing his hands. When he spoke again, his voice was barely audible despite how close he stood. "These people aren't devils. I don't want to hurt them like that again."
Pieck didn't point out that they would still be hurting them if they returned the Founding Titan to Marley. Succeeding in the mission would likely mean guaranteeing the island's annihilation, but something told her that they already knew that. Even if they didn't want to consciously acknowledge it, they knew. It was probably why they were willing to entertain the concept of failing to find the Founding Titan and spending the rest of their lives playing dead on Paradis - or in Annie's case, scrambling to get back to her father when she was supposed to be dead.
Of course, Annie wouldn't be the only one separated from her family. Pieck allowed herself to think of her own father for an instant, to let grief wash over her and her heart to sink inside her chest. If they didn't find the Founding Titan, she would probably never see her father again. The only father she had would be lost to her. But... maybe that wouldn't be so bad. As long as Marley didn't think that they had actively betrayed them, that was a significant chance that he would continue to reap the benefits from having a warrior for a daughter. He would hurt, but surely it was a hurt that he had already prepared himself for. She would hurt, but after everything she had done, she had more than earned a little pain by now.
The refugees? The haunted and hurting faces around her, the ones who pressed on in the midst of hopelessness and despair? They hadn't earned the pain that had been inflicted on them. They didn't deserve to have to go through it again.
Pieck's eyes stung. She blinked a few times to eradicate the sensation before tears could form and offered Annie and Bertolt a small, fragile smile. "Alright," she whispered. "We can come up with another plan."
Annie shrugged Bertolt's hand off her shoulder and crossed her arms over her chest. "I don't think we should abandon the old plan completely. We still want to find the Founding Titan, right?"
Bertolt nodded. "Joining the Military Police will get us closer to the royal family," he said.
"Right," Annie said. "Although... one of us should check out the Survey Corps and see what they're up to. And even if we don't find the Founder..." She paused for half a second as she glanced off to the side. "I don't want to live in squalor the entire time I'm here."
Pieck nodded. "Makes sense," she said, even though it didn't. With their constant expeditions and pursuit of knowledge, there was a faint chance that the Survey Corps would know something about that Founding Titan. However, if Annie's secondary goal was truly to secure a better life for herself, then there was little to no reason for her to bring up the possibility of joining the most dangerous and least celebrated branch of the military.
But if she wanted to atone and soothe her guilty conscience? Then joining the Survey Corps made perfect sense.
"Alright," Pieck said, just for the relief of saying it. "We'll join the Training Corps, but no more attacks on the walls."
"Thank you," Bertolt whispered.
Pieck smiled faintly. "Thank you."
And so, the warriors changed their plan.
Then Reiner showed up.
Reiner Braun was a member of the Marleyan Junior military. He was an entitled, prejudiced, oblivious brat who had carelessly bullied them throughout their training. He shouldn't have been on Paradis.
Yet there he was. Pieck didn't know what to make of it. All she knew was that his presence couldn't mean anything good and it was her job to make sure that it didn't turn into anything worse. When Annie knocked him to the ground and pressed an arm to his throat, Pieck called her off and led them somewhere they could sort this out without making a scene.
As she hunted down a large enough closet, Pieck found herself thinking about her history with her newest problem.
Growing up, everyone had handled Reiner differently. Porco fought back, at least, as much as the circumstances allowed him to. Annie had grit her teeth and bore it, even as visible hurt and resentment began to build under her skin with every cruel, thoughtless barb. Bertolt fluctuated between trying to be friendly with him and just staying out of his way. Marcel, too kind for his own good, had actually tried to befriend him, claiming that he saw something good in him.
Out of all the candidates, Pieck had had the least direct interaction with him. She'd tried to make herself seem weird and uninteresting, not worth paying attention to, and watched him from afar. It had worked for the most part. However, 'for the most part' only meant so much with someone like Reiner. He had still called her 'devil' time and time again and looked at her like she was a bug beneath his foot.
The way he treated her was the easy part of it. Pieck had been helpless to do anything but watch as he poked and prodded at her friends, content in the knowledge that his status as a Marleyan would be enough to prevent any retaliation. Even when he started to shoot Marcel warm looks when he thought no one was looking, he never let up on the others. He had made Annie and Bertolt feel worse about themselves, cost Porco his shot at a titan, tricked Marcel into wasting his time and energy on someone who would never change.
Pieck didn't hate Marleyans as a whole. Reiner was another matter, a personal one. She knew that Marcel would be disappointed in her for it, but it wouldn't be a lie to say that she loathed him. Maybe even hated him.
It was hard not to let that loathing show on her face when she closed them into the closet, especially when Reiner had the gall to play dumb in the face of Annie's questions. However, it got a little easier when he said something that sparked her curiosity.
"I'm not Marleyan."
It felt like a shockwave traveled through the group. Pieck shrugged it off with ease, driven by the need to figure out exactly what was going on. Because the Reiner she knew, overwhelmingly nationalistic and proud of his heritage, would never deny his status as a Marleyan. She canted her head to the side and took a step forward. "Is that so?" she asked.
Did Reiner know how much he looked like a cornered animal right then? She doubted it. If he did, he would probably be putting on some sort of bluster to counteract it. Instead, there was only wild desperation. He stammered for a moment, doubtlessly too caught up in whatever was going on in his head to get his words out, before saying something impossible.
"I'm the inheritor of the Armored Titan; Marley sent me to help you in your mission following the loss of the Jaw."
Pieck felt her eyes widen. She had sent word of Marcel's demise and their success at Shiganshina back to Marley. Once they were settled in Wall Rose, she'd convinced Bertolt and Annie to let her set out for one of the checkpoints beyond Wall Maria, where she had left a letter. The whole thing had taken no more than a week. She hadn't known for sure that her letter would actually reach Marley, let alone expected anything to come of it. She certainly hadn't expected them to send backup.
Past a certain point, she hadn't wanted them to send backup. And now...
...Now wasn't the time to think about that. Reiner, a Marleyan, had just claimed that he was the new Armored Titan. That was impossible. It should have been impossible. However, Reiner seemed to be caught in the throes of visceral, all-consuming terror. Fear on that level just couldn't be faked. More than that, when Annie called him out on what should have been his impossible lie, he pretended that he didn't know them.
Did he truly think they were that stupid?
No, that was desperation in his voice, not derision. He didn't expect them not to be able to remember him, he wanted them to.
Something was very wrong here. But what?
Then Reiner said something that made it click.
"Marleyans can't be titans."
Pieck blinked as all the pieces came together. She then smiled as she said. "You're right; Marleyans can't be titans. Don't worry, Reiner. You don't have to do anything like that; I believe you."
She said it because it was the truth. Marleyans couldn't be titans, except for when they were only Marleyan in name. She had heard of Eldian families escaping from Liberio, faking their information, and pretending to be Marleyan before.
Except that didn't feel quite right. His parents never would have let him join the military if they were living a lie on that scale. More to the point, Reiner might have known that he was Eldian, and there was no way that he had been faking his disgust for her race. For their race. However, there was another possibility, one that suddenly seemed very possible when remembered that Reiner had never mentioned his father.
A Marleyan couldn't become a titan, but they could if they were half Eldian. It was also possible that his mother wouldn't have considered that a blood test could reveal his parentage, thus explaining his military involvement. And that military training would explain why he was on Paradis now. Officially, interbreeding would result in the execution of both families involved, but if Marley was desperate for someone to inherit the Armored Titan, someone in Reiner's position could serve as the perfect tool. Become a warrior, do right by Marley, or you and your whole family will be killed. Reiner would have no room to do anything but what they told him.
...There was no way that he would waver from the mission. He was going to try to see that Paradis was destroyed, and if he caught them wavering, he would tell Marley that they were all traitors.
Fury rose up inside Pieck. She forced herself to swallow it down as she guided Annie and Bertolt to follow her lead, to pretend that they bought Reiner's claim of being someone else.
It made her feel wretched to do. If this vile situation had any silver lining, it was in the fact that the boy who had tormented them was one of the very people he'd called devils. It was karma at its finest, an opportunity for them to get back at him for everything they had experienced. Bertolt was too kind to do anything, but Annie deserved to be able to tear into him as much as she wanted.
But they couldn't. Working with Reiner would be hard enough even without acknowledging the elephant in the room. If they did, it might well become impossible. There was also a chance that it would lead to trouble with Marley, which wasn't a chance that she was willing to take. Perhaps letting him rest with his lie was the cowardly way out, but with everything falling apart around them, Pieck was willing to be a bit of a coward.
Funny. For a coward, she was doomed to get an awful lot of blood on her hands. All three of them were.
As Pieck went on to explain the plan - the terrible, cruel, heartless plan that they had officially forsaken only a few weeks ago - she decided.
She hated Reiner Braun.
Reiner was going to try to get his sleeping arrangements altered so that he was closer to Bertolt, Pieck, and Annie. For the time being, however, he was still on the other side of the hostel. That meant that when it grew late into the night, he had to leave, finally giving everyone else a chance to talk.
They huddled in between her and Annie's cots, just like they had been before the intruder arrived. There, Pieck and Bertolt gave each other a long, strained look. It seemed clear to her that Bertolt knew what he wanted to say, but didn't know how to say it. If she had to guess, she would go as far as to say that he was struggling with the very same realization as her. They all were.
Of course, just because you realized something didn't mean that you accepted it. And one of them was going to have a harder time accepting their new reality than the other two.
"What does this mean for the mission?" Annie demanded.
Bertolt looked down at his lap and Pieck swallowed heavily. I'm sorry, Annie.
"It means that we have to go back to the original plan," Pieck whispered. "Find the Founding Titan at any cost."
Annie stared at Pieck with piercing, desperate, disbelieving blue eyes. Pieck met her gaze head-on, sorrowful but unyielding. Finally, Annie slowly shook her head.
"Not any cost," she said. "We aren't going to destroy another wall. Pieck, we agreed."
Pieck's eyes began to sting. She closed them long enough to shove the sensation away before opening them back up and saying, "I know, and I'm sorry, but Reiner can never know about that. If it reaches a point where it looks like that's what we'll have to do, then... That's what we'll have to do."
Annie's lips parted. She began to raise a shaking hand, but lowered it before Pieck could get an idea of what she intended to do with it.
Meanwhile, Bertolt had turned to look at Annie. He kept his gaze on her as he hesitantly suggested, "Maybe we can get him to go along with us. Reiner was... he wasn't nice, but he wasn't entirely awful either. Once he realizes that he would be killing people..."
Pieck and Annie responded at the same time.
"You think that he thinks of anyone here as a person?" Annie spat. Her voice pitched upwards as she spoke, not enough to put them at risk of being overheard, but enough to make her disgust plain as day. The heartbreak in her expression faded away in favor of cold fury.
Pieck's response was more subdued. She shook her head and murmured, "Reiner is extremely loyal to Marley. All we would be doing is giving him the opportunity to report us as traitors."
A bead of sweat slipped down Bertolt's brow. He began to wring his hands together as he stammered, "Th-that was then. Things might be different now that he's..."
"A devil?" Annie suggested, voice dropping into something dark and condemning.
"...One of us," Bertolt continued. "I don't know what happened to him, but it couldn't have been good, and going from Marleyan to Eldian must be... He might not be as loyal to Marley after that. He might... he might be more willing to think about other people's feelings."
Annie grit her jaw, but otherwise didn't comment. She didn't need to - Pieck could all but feel the disbelief radiating from her. Pieck was inclined to agree with it. After all, this was Reiner they were talking about. The idea that this horrible, entitled, prejudiced, mindlessly dogmatic boy could possibly get better was beyond ridiculous. Whatever he had experienced might be enough to humble other people, but him? He would probably come up with some reason why they were still all terrible devils and he was the exception.
Those were Pieck's feelings though, and she couldn't risk making her calls based on her feelings. Not when the facts were so much more damning.
"That's exactly why we can't risk it," Pieck said. "Annie, Bertolt. You both agree that Reiner really thought he was Marleyan, right?"
"Yes," Bertolt murmured. "He always seemed very... confident."
Meanwhile, Annie nodded, her expression growing a shade darker.
Pieck gave a single sharp nod of her own. "That means that he's either half-Marleyan or his entire family was lying about being Marleyan the whole time. Both of those things are very illegal. It's surprising that he wasn't just sent to paradise, honestly."
"He would have made a good titan," Annie muttered.
"Annie," Bertolt whispered, a hint of dismay in his voice.
"He's good at hurting things," Annie shot back.
The memory of Bertolt flinching at the sound of Reiner's voice flashed through her mind. A younger, smaller Annie looking like she was struggling to hold back tears after being asked about her horns. Porco cradling a broken arm. Yes, Reiner was certainly very good at breaking things. In that way, perhaps it was actually fitting that he had been made the Armored Titan rather than another mindless beast to roam paradise. After all, there was no telling how much pain and suffering he may inflict upon the world now.
They were getting off-topic.
Pieck cleared her throat before continuing, "What I'm saying is that he's going to be on an even tighter leash than we are. I'm willing to bet that this isn't an opportunity for him, it's a second chance. For him and his family. If he fails, they'll probably all be executed for his crimes. You can't negotiate with that."
Annie's expression cleared into something pristine and emotionless as she looked Pieck in the eyes and said, "Maybe we don't have to negotiate with him."
...She was right. There were so many things that could kill someone on Paradis - even a titan shifter. Reiner had only just found them. If he disappeared now, Marley would never need to know that he had found them in the first place. All they would have to do was kill one more person.
Pieck's throat constricted. "What are you saying?" she asked. Because she had to ask.
Annie didn't so much as blink. "Don't play dumb."
No, this really wasn't the time to play dumb, was it? It wasn't a good look on her anyway.
Pieck looked down at her lap. She had to face the facts. Reiner may have been a shifter now, but no matter what training he had been put through while they were gone, he couldn't hope to stand a chance against the three of them put together. It would be murder, but it would be a murder that could stand to save untold lives. She would be killing someone she knew, but certainly not someone she'd miss. When she put it like that, then maybe...
"Wait a minute," Bertolt cut in. His voice was shaken, and when Pieck looked up, an undercurrent of horror was plastered across his expression. "You aren't talking about killing him, are you?"
"It would be for the best," Annie said, unrepentant.
Bertolt shook his head. "It would be murder. I mean... I know we're already murderers, but I mean..." He wrapped his arms around himself as he paused. "It's Reiner."
Annie scowled. "All the more reason to do it."
Bertolt shook his head again, this time a little more fiercely. "It isn't what Marcel would have wanted."
Silence. Pieck and Annie exchanged a glance, after which Annie looked to the side while Pieck gently asked, "What do you mean, Bertolt?"
Now that he had been put on the spot, Bertolt seemed a lot more sure of himself. He ran a hand across his forehead, grimacing when it came away sweaty. He held that hand in his lap and stared down at it for several heartbeats before finally raising his gaze to meet Pieck's. "Marcel always thought that there was good in Reiner. He would have wanted us to give him a chance. And Reiner... Reiner was always a lot nicer to Marcel than the rest of us, so maybe he was right. Besides... if his family is in that much trouble, don't you think there's a chance that they'll be killed if he disappears as well? It's not their fault that he acted the way he did."
Pieck looked down at her hands - hands that had already caused so much death and despair. What was one more life, the life of someone she hated, when it could prevent even greater misery? And yet...
She disagreed with Bertolt about Reiner's family. Seeing as they were the people who raised him, it went to reason that the way he treated them was absolutely their fault. They were also either a group of Eldians who were so ashamed of their heritage that they had lied or a bunch of Marleyans who had raised a half-Eldian child to hate his own kind. Maybe she could understand them if she knew their full story, but as it stood, she couldn't bring herself to feel any true sympathy for them. But Marcel?
Marcel would be disappointed in them if he knew what they were thinking about doing. No, worse than disappointed. He would be angry. Back when Reiner first started hanging around them, she had thought that he was being nice to him out of some sort of strategic value. When she realized that he wasn't, she had been kind of hurt, even though she never actually said anything. She never understood what Marcel saw in Reiner or thought that he deserved his kindness. But he had seen something. Perhaps it was something that wasn't really there, but she knew that Marcel would have vouched for him if he were there now.
...If Marcel were able to vouch for Reiner, then Pieck wouldn't be there to act against him. Because Pieck was only alive because Marcel had pushed her out of the way.
"...Alright," Pieck said. "You're right. We'll let him live."
Annie wrapped her arms around herself. Pieck began to reach out to her, but pulled her hand back at the last second.
There was a very real chance that they were making a mistake, but she owed it to Marcel to make that gamble, even if she was gambling on Reiner. She had to trust in his judgment one last time. But how could she explain that to Annie in a way that could even hope to provide some solace to what she must be feeling right now?
She couldn't. So they just had to move on.
"We'll need to be careful about how we act around him," Pieck said. "He clearly doesn't want to acknowledge our past together, so I say that we go with it and pretend that he's someone else."
"Why?" Annie asked, still refusing to look at her. "He doesn't deserve to get to avoid his situation."
Pieck sighed. She didn't doubt that Reiner was supposed to keep whatever truth laid behind his heritage a secret, but it was also ridiculous to expect that they wouldn't remember him. Back in the closet, she may have implied that they were pretending he was a different person because Marley wanted them to, but that was nothing more than a convenient lie. Reiner wanted them to forget who he was because it made things easier for him. But in a warped, disgusting way, it also made things easier for them.
"We need to work with him. That will be easier if we avoid conflict, and the best way to avoid conflict is to pretend that we've never met. It'll also be easier if we let him think he's in charge, since Marley probably sent him to make sure we're continuing the mission and get us back in line if need be," Pieck said, the gears in her head turning even if she spoke.
"But you're our leader," Bertolt said, voice hesitant.
A wry smile twisted at Pieck's lips. "But he doesn't need to know that. He'll probably be easier to handle if he doesn't."
Looking back at Reiner's history of ignorance, she could all too easily see how he could be led to think that he was making all the major decisions when that wasn't the case at all.
"It sounds like you're planning something sick," Annie muttered.
"I'm not planning anything," Pieck said. "I'm just trying to find a way to get us through this."
All of them, whether she liked it or not. If it just so happened that by being especially careful with how she treated Reiner, she might eventually find a way to minimize Paradisian casualties... well, she would just have to wait and see what happened.
It was several hours until sunrise by the time they all went to bed.
Pieck still didn't get any sleep. Every time she closed her eyes, her mind was invaded by memories of the fall of Wall Maria and visions of the terrors that might be yet to come. When the sun finally rose to peek through the windows, she wanted nothing more than to melt back into her cot and block the rest of the world out.
But that wasn't an option.
It looked like she wasn't the only one who hadn't gotten any sleep that night. Annie and Bertolt both looked tired. Yet Reiner managed to outdo them all when he found them lurking outside the entrance to the hostel that morning. He approached them slowly with heavy shoulders, red-rimmed eyes with dark bags beneath, and an expression that was even more laden with exhaustion than Pieck’s own.
While Pieck leaned against the cold stone wall of the hostel and Annie glowered at Reiner, but otherwise remained perfectly still, Bertolt took a step forward. "Are - are you alright, Reiner?" he asked. "You look kind of..."
Reiner grinned. It was strained and didn't come anywhere close to hiding how drained it was, but Pieck supposed it was a decent attempt. "Just a little tired," he said.
There was nothing about Bertolt that looked convinced, but that didn't stop him from nodding. "A-alright. I was wondering, how long have you been in the area?"
"About three days," Reiner said. "Why?"
Bertolt hesitated for a moment before taking another step forward. "We've been here since the wall fell. Would you like me to show you around?"
Reiner's countenance brightened slightly. "If it wouldn't be too much trouble."
Too much trouble. How funny - Reiner had never cared whether he was troubling them before. Pieck looked down to hide the onset of an expression that could have been a scowl or a smirk. Somehow, the feeling of her lips twisting wasn't enough to tell her which.
"Not at all," Bertolt said. He turned around to face Pieck and Annie as he added, "do you guys want to-"
Pieck stepped swiftly to the side and grabbed Annie's upper arm. "Actually, Annie and I were going to see if we can grab some extra shifts in the fields."
She didn't dare shoot Annie a pleading look, no matter how much she wanted to. As such, it was a relief when her fellow warrior nodded. "We could use the extra money," she muttered.
"They'll pay you?" Reiner asked, puzzlement clear in his voice. Pieck and Annie both snapped their gazes toward him at the same time. He didn't falter when he met Pieck's eyes, but when he looked over at Annie, he swallowed heavily and took a nearly imperceptible step backward. Pieck resisted the urge to grin.
"I - I thought refugees were expected to work and only received their rations," Reiner added.
"Normally. Sometimes they'll pay you if you do more than your share. It's not much, but it's better than nothing," Pieck provided.
"Especially now that we have another mouth to feed," Annie muttered.
Reiner nodded. "Right. I could... help, if you wanted."
Something sad shifted across Bertolt's expression while something angry fluttered in Pieck's chest. "You don't have to do that," he said.
No, Reiner did not have to do anything other than what Marley had told them to, and Marley wouldn't have told him to perform extra manual labor within the walls. That prompted the question, was his offer some weak attempt to make amends when he was too cowardly to directly address their past? Or did he truly think them so stupid that he believed that they didn't recognize him, and this was him trying to start off on the right foot?
Either way, she wanted some space from him right now, and Annie probably needed it.
Pieck plastered a grin to her face and said, "Maybe later. Just focus on getting used to the area for now."
With that, she walked away, off to find the closest volunteer station. Annie followed close behind. The glower on her face said that even though she found her company more tolerable than Reiner, she still wasn't happy about the decisions that had been made. Pieck offered her a weak smile and didn't say anything to try and make her think differently.
If she was Annie, she would be angry at her too.
And so the tone was set. Pieck avoided Reiner aside from when the warriors came together to discuss their mission. She was relieved to find that he didn't seem to think much of it - likely recalling the aloof, distant girl from their training days.
Annie was a little more complicated. The damage between her and Pieck was done and she didn't know if there was any undoing it. However, her fellow warrior still followed her lead and kept her distance from Reiner for the most part. The only prominent exceptions were when the urge to lash out at him grew too great and Annie approached him with some sort of barb or reminder of her shared past. It was the opposite of helpful, yet Pieck couldn't bring herself to make her stop. Maybe it was because she hadn't done anything to bring an end to this game of ignorance they were playing. Perhaps it was because she also enjoyed seeing Reiner squirm. Either way, although Reiner didn't quite roll over when faced with Annie, he also didn't do anything to defend herself from her subtle but scathing attacks.
Bertolt was another matter entirely. He tried to be friendly with Reiner, tried to make friends with him. Pieck understood his actions on a logical level. Reiner was their teammate now - befriending him would probably be beneficial. A fractured group could only be bad for them in the long run. Yet when she considered trying to follow his lead, bitter, not-so-old memories drifted to the surface of her mind, putting a stop to that idea before she could even truly consider it.
Fractured or not, their group held together for the next few weeks, and when it was time to join the training corps, their existing dynamic gave Pieck an idea.
All four of them wrote that they were from the same hometown. However, among the rest of the cadets, they would pretend that most of them were no more than casual acquaintances. Bertolt and Reiner would stick together, but Pieck and Annie would both go their own ways. It kept them from drifting too far apart while ensuring that they wouldn't all immediately be implicated if one of them was discovered.
It meant that the only one who had to spend a lot of time around Reiner was the one who could actually tolerate him.
Pieck anticipated that training would be a lonely time. It had to be, since she wasn't supposed to be too close to Annie or Bertolt and she couldn't risk getting attached to any of the Paradisians.
Then, only two days into training, she met them.
Pieck had planned on staying in the dining hall until curfew. She may not be able to let herself get close to the other cadets, but it certainly wouldn't hurt to know them. Only two days in, everyone's dynamics were still being established, but there was certainly a lot to know about the individuals.
There was the trio of cadets who hailed from Shiganshina. The loud-mouthed one, Eren, was easy to read, the unspeakable nightmares he had faced clearly propelling him forward in his hopeless dream to destroy all the titans. It was the other two who were more interesting. Armin, the quiet boy who always looked like he was thinking, and Mikasa, the stoic girl who was always at the loudmouth's side. However, they were also far more difficult to read. So was the freckled girl, Ymir, who had quickly taken to shadowing the sweet blonde, Krista.
They were outliers though. Out of the others, she had quickly realized that the potato girl, Sasha, spoke a little too precisely and politely for it to be her real manner of speech. The boy who had saluted incorrectly, Connie, was clearly from the country and seemed to have minimal idea of what being in the military actually entailed. The same could probably be said about the ambitious, overconfident blowhard, Jean, as well as the overly earnest Marco.
Those were just the ones who immediately came to mind when she thought of her new classmates. She had noticed plenty of little details about the others as well, yet all of it probably still paled in comparison to what Reiner had learned, given how oddly comfortable he already seemed among the "islands devils".
He was probably off socializing in the boy's barracks while she lingered in the dining hall. Unfortunately, he was also probably being more productive by doing so. Only a few pockets of people remained still lingered in the dimly lit room around her, all of whom were engaged in quiet conversation with one or two partners. It was too quiet for her to overhear what any of them were saying, and if she wasn't careful, she would end up looking like she was trying to eavesdrop. Assuming that she didn't already.
Pieck stood up, only for her foot to get caught on the table leg when she moved to walk away. The next thing she knew, she was careening toward the ground. In the mere instant that she had to act, she flung her arms out in front of herself and winced, bracing for impact-
- but it never came. Instead, two warm hands grabbed her shoulders tight and pulled her upright. The next thing she knew, she was staring at the face of the blowhard himself, Jean Kirstein.
For a moment, all they did was stare at each other. Then Jean frowned and said, "Geeze. Think you might be a little clumsy for the military?"
How rude, she thought. At the same instant, another voice cried, "Jean!" Over his shoulder, she spotted Marco Bodt scrambling out of his seat and hurrying toward them.
Pieck grinned. "Maybe I was just testing your reflexes."
"My reflexes?" Jean parroted, a hint of confusion washing over his features. It was more endearing than it had any right to be, given how obnoxious his personality seemed so far.
Still, he had saved her from her fall. That had to be worth something.
"Is everything alright?" Marco asked, coming to a stop by Jean's side.
Pieck shifted to face Marco. "Everything's fine, Marco. It's just like I was telling Jean here." She paused to wink at the unfortunate young man in question. "Isn't a gentleman supposed to catch a lady when she falls?"
Jean sputtered. "That's not-" He abruptly let go of her arms, a blush creeping up his neck and onto his cheeks. "That has nothing to do with it! I just didn't want to stand there and let you hurt yourself."
"You moved really fast," Marco observed, a note of approval and admiration in his voice.
"He did. And it was very noble of him," Pieck said. Jean's face started to turn a little redder, so she made the extremely magnanimous decision to let out a gentle laugh. "I'm just teasing, Jean."
"You're not very funny," he muttered.
"Ah, I disagree," Pieck said, grin stretching a little wider.
Jean opened his mouth, but before he could get another word out, Marco cut in. "You remembered our names?"
"Sure did," Pieck said. She rocked back onto her heels before adding, "Don't tell me you've forgotten mine?"
Now it was Marco's turn to blush. Of course, that just made Jean protest, "Why would we? Shadis didn't stop to chew you out!"
"That's no excuse," Pieck chided. "What if we were in the middle of an emergency and you need to call out to me? We could-"
"Pieck," Jean interrupted.
She blinked. "What?"
Jean stood up a little straighter and grinned smugly. "I just remembered. Your name is Pieck Finger." He sounded far too pleased with himself for someone who had done something as simple as remembering his comrade's name. It was a stupid thing to be so happy about. Yet his happiness was infectious, and Pieck found herself fighting back a laugh.
"You've got me," Pieck said. "The question is, will you remember it next time you see me?"
"Of course!" Jean said. The arrogant boy had the nerve to look a little affronted that she even had to ask.
"I'll try to remember as well!" Marco proclaimed.
This time, Pieck couldn't hold back her chuckle. "We'll see." She took a step backward and to the side - carefully avoiding the table - before saying, "I'm heading to bed. Marco, it was nice to meet you. Jean... thank you for saving my clumsy self."
Jean rubbed the back of his head and looked to the side. "You're welcome, I guess."
"Goodnight, Pieck!" Marco warmly proclaimed.
Pieck let out one last laugh before turning around to stride toward the girl's barracks.
She wasn't supposed to get attached to any of the cadets, yet there was a tiny part of her that couldn't help but acknowledge that this felt like the start of something.
If she was honest with herself, she might say that it felt like the beginning of the end.