"Chang," he said when the sparring bout was over, voice quiet and contained. "Put away your gear and come with me."
The man with the jet-black hair didn't say anything. He never did say very much, unless he was angry. Sephiroth had seen nothing to make him believe the man acted any other way when his commanding officers weren't around, and it bothered him that he didn't know whether that was another warning sign.
Under his eye, the other sparring pairs moved a tiny bit more energetically. Another day, Sephiroth would have commented on that, never mind that he knew the men who made it into SOLDIER knew the difference between training and the field. Today, Sephiroth waited for Chang, as the man put the practice sword back on the rack and pulled off his protective gear.
Even after two hours of drills, his steps were still long, elastic, and precise like a hunting cat, with very little to betray his fatigue. A lot like Sephiroth's himself, as a matter of fact -- except for the fact that Chang was perhaps twenty centimeters shorter than he was. Without the sweat soaking his shirt through and the strands of black hair escaping from the strict ponytail, the fact he wasn't coming back from a picnic would have been hard to notice. Sephiroth had appreciated that, at the beginning; a good fighter was one thing, but a truly fearsome fighter was one who made hunting, killing, seem easy as breathing, even when -- especially when -- it was anything but.
Curse Shinra's inadequate Human Resources department, and its appetite for conquest that meant he had to start second-guessing every single one of his men, especially the competent ones.
Chang was expressionless, hard-eyed. The Second Class enhancements had kicked in, and a faint gold glow shimmered over his black irises; Sephiroth noted the way the glow sharpened, another telltale.
There was no surprise on his face. No confusion.
"Walk with me."
They left the gymnasium in silence, Sephiroth a step ahead.
"The results of your latest background check came in."
He left it at that, superior senses trained onto the man at his side. The face didn't change much; the heartbeat sped up briefly, but nothing like the kick it should have gotten if Chang hadn't been expecting it.
He waited for Chang to start explaining the holes; he wasn't even sure the report had covered everything. But the Second Class didn't. He didn't even express surprise that he'd been submitted to another background check.
"Do you have something to tell me?" Sephiroth, of course, was carrying his own blade. He waited for the first lie.
Chang looked up at him. "What do you want to know?"
"You were not born in Mideel."
Chang sighed then, and his eyes went from watchful to weary. "... No, I wasn't." He squared his shoulders and said briskly, "I was born in an isolationist clan that prized itself on keeping up traditions and guarding themselves from progress, which they saw as corruption. They're extinct now. You won't find them on any official map. As far as Shinra is concerned, they never existed." He snorted then, giving Sephiroth a cynical look. "As you can see, that makes proving my legal existence somewhat difficult. Getting a fake Mideel residency established seemed like less of a headache. It was only a matter of being willing to part with a few hundred gil."
Hm. No noticeable difference in his heartbeat, though his pupils seemed to have dilated. It was hard to tell with black eyes.
There were a myriad of small undiscovered tribes in the Mideel islands -- undiscovered as in they'd never had official contact with the Shinra Company. They were probably well-known to the neighbors they traded with, just like all those small villages in the mountains. Still, you could have driven a truck through the omissions in Chang's story.
"And when you enlisted, you never thought this little fact would be brought to light?" he asked, arching a silver eyebrow.
Chang's lips quirked up in sardonic amusement. "Of course I did. But apart from fighting I have very few marketable skills. At least Shinra offers healthcare. I never planned to go much higher than trooper; I would just have been fired, and had to look for some other mercenary group to employ me."
Sephiroth paused in his steps then, to look at the smaller man. "... You regard the Shinra military like a mercenary group then?"
Chang looked up to meet his eyes right on, and he didn't flinch away from their strange pupils and green shine. "It's not a state army. It doesn't exist to protect the people, but the interests of the company."
"This is very close to subversive talk," Sephiroth mused, eyes narrowed predatorily.
Chang snorted, and didn't look very impressed. "I'm perfectly aware that the interests of the majority of the world are tied in with the interests of the company. There's still a distinction, though. But seeing as Shinra Corporation is the one that pays my paychecks, so far it's still rather academic."
"Hm. So your motive to join the military was alimentary."
"Not only. I... like to fight," Chang admitted with some difficulty.
Sephiroth's gaze sharpened; that was the first lie he'd heard him say outright. "Really."
Chang shook his head in irritation, closed his eyes briefly. When he opened them again... Sephiroth didn't know. There were things in there he didn't have in his experience to name.
"... I was born for fighting. It is the thing I do best for my people. The only thing I can do for my people. Except they're all dead," he gritted out, fingers curled into fists. He turned away then; not entirely, but enough that he didn't have to look at Sephiroth directly. "Some people are born to be teachers, or healers. I was born to be a warrior. That's all there is to it."
Sephiroth nodded slowly. For a moment, he wondered what would happen if Shinra went bankrupt and cut him free. What would he do? He only knew how to be a soldier. But no matter how sincere, how deeply personal they sounded, perhaps Chang's words were calculated to provoke his sympathy. Trusting him was dangerous.
"... So your motives for seeking employment were money and continued fighting practice. And your motives for trying out for SOLDIER?"
Chang smirked faintly. "I always have to be the best. It's my greatest fault."
Sephiroth allowed himself a small smile in answer. Curse himself, he approved of Chang, of his drive and his sharp intellect and his fighting instincts. That shouldn't have been enough.
But Zack liked Chang too, and he was a lot harder to fool. He said Chang was lonely, grieving, and too damn proud to ask for help with that; he'd rather bleed to death on his feet. But that he had honor, too.
"Where is your clan from?" he asked conversationally.
Chang gave him a blank look. "Mideel was the first town I came across."
That wasn't really an answer; but if Wufei Chang was a Wutainese agent as the Turks half-believed then he hadn't done a great job of covering his tracks. He also displayed a rather marked lack of horror or disgust for the unnatural mutations going on inside his own body.
Granted, even if he wasn't a Wutainese agent his story still had way too many holes to trust him out of reach of a good, sharp blade.
But the Masamune had enough reach for that. "I'm going to put you on probation, Chang," he said briskly, "and your security clearance lowered back to Third for the time being. Be grateful I have too few competent men to decide to err on the side of caution."
The side of caution would be to throw him to the Turks and let them sort it out. Whatever Chang knew, once the Turks were done they would know it too. Though if he had the misfortune of being innocent -- or at least non-hostile to Shinra -- then the SOLDIER would be quite unable to get him back. And Hojo was always looking for test subjects to perfect his treatments on... Sephiroth would wait until he had more hints than a few registration irregularities before he delivered one of his most promising officers to the labs.
"... Make no mistake," he said, voice silky-soft, as he leaned close enough that a few silver strands brushed the man's temple. "This is my command. Those are my men. Should anything untoward happen, you will not see a trial. Are we clear?"
Chang didn't give an inch, even when the green glow of Sephiroth's eyes started dancing on his bronze skin. He just stared right back, gold-on-black, serious and determined. And then he smiled -- a thin, amused, approving smile. "I wouldn't expect any less of you. Sir."
Sephiroth considered him for a few seconds, then gave a sharp nod and turned on his heel, back toward the gymnasium.
"... You're not afraid of me at all, Chang, are you?" he asked after a few steps, amused -- bemused, too, though Zack was starting to cure him of that faint surprise that men who should have known better still failed to cower before him.
Wufei Chang sized him up and down; a quick, critical glance that missed very little. "No." The glow of his eyes brightened briefly -- not with happiness, but a feral sort of anticipation. "I've seen you spar -- you're one of the most lethal men I've ever seen. You would be a formidable adversary." He nodded, respect from one swordsman to another.
'One of the most', Sephiroth noted. Not 'the most'. Intriguing. Suspicious.
"But that does not scare you."
"You're extraordinary," he said, matter of fact, so different from the awe or flattery those words usually held. "But you're still a living being. That means there's a way to kill you."
Sephiroth chuckled softly. Fearless. In a very different way from Zack -- not determined to make everything better, but grimly persuaded that everything would be worse, and ready to deal with it.
If he didn't end up having to kill Wufei Chang for betraying him, he would enjoy having him in his personal unit when the man eventually made First Class.
He pushed the gymnasium door open, and gestured at Chang to return to his training