Final Fantasy VII

Only a Shadow

By LuckyLadybug

Notes: The characters are not mine and this ficlit is. It's meant to be strange, even eerie, and it draws inspiration from a running fandom joke about the black rider in the original FF7 game. It takes place near the end of that game, during the chocobo races. Many thanks to Kaze and Lisa for plot help!

The mysterious black rider was notorious to fans of chocobo racing. He, along with his black chocobo named Teoh, won match after match. Even the most skilled jockeys could not surpass him. He would cross the finish line in silence, Teoh pulling on the reins and warking in pleasure as they came to a stop. And instead of acknowledging the crowds, he would walk forward in determination to collect his winnings, leading Teoh behind him. Then they would vanish, not to be seen again until the next race.

He had been seen off and on for some time, beginning seven or eight years before Sephiroth's assault on the Planet. Now, with Meteor swiftly approaching and AVALANCHE needing the most items they could possibly get for the final battle, Cloud had taken to raising and racing chocobos as part of his training. And of course, during the races he often encountered the enigmatic jockey, known only as "The Black Shadow" on entry forms. It had become something of a personal goal for Cloud to defeat the other, perhaps to prove that he could, or perhaps to give him confidence for the upcoming battle against Sephiroth. Or even both.

And it was so annoying, that no one even knew what the guy looked like! That wide-brimmed hat was always pulled so low over his eyes, and there was a mask besides. Every article of clothing he wore was black, including a long cape that streamed out behind him. He seemed determined to keep the air of mystery around himself.

Some thought he would be furious when Cloud actually managed to defeat him. Cloud himself was still not sure how it had happened. He had called to his own chocobo, urging her on, and suddenly in a burst of speed he and the black rider were neck and neck. The two birds had snapped at each other, each wanting to win, while their jockeys exchanged nothing more than a quick glance before pulling on the reins to keep the birds apart. And somehow Cloud and his chocobo had flown across the finish line a fraction before the Black Shadow and Teoh. As usual, the masked man had vanished shortly afterward.

Now, some time later, everything was mostly vacant. The crowds had gone home, as well as the workers and the other riders. Cloud was alone as he fed his chocobo at the stables, sitting on an overturned bucket as she contentedly played with his hair. He was still in a daze from the outcome of the race.

He would not be able to participate in such events much longer, at least not until Sephiroth was defeated. And maybe he would not even return from that battle. If he had to die in order to bring down that madman, then so be it. But he wanted to live, if at all possible. He did not want to cause anyone to feel anguish over another lost comrade.

Weird, that a guy who had once been ostracized now had so many friends.

And he had lost two of them. . . .

He sighed, reaching up to pat the chocobo's long neck. He had no idea what enjoyment they got out of messing with his hair. Every chocobo he had known had done that, and Zack had had the same problem. Maybe they really did think anyone with spiky hair was a relation.

"We should get going," he said. "It's late."

The bird warbled agreement.

He came to attention at a sound from outside. Was someone walking around out there? He had thought he was the last one to leave.

"Who's there?" he called.

At first there was no answer. But then the sound came again, closer this time. Cloud felt himself tense. If the person was friendly, why hadn't they said something? He was really not in the mood for a fight right now. He had brought his sword, since in times like these he never knew when he might need it, so that was something in his favor.

"It was a good race."

He started at the deep voice. A dark silhouette was standing in the doorway. In the oncoming night, he could make out the wide-brimmed hat and the cloak. His eyes widened.

"Y-you!" he exclaimed, and mentally kicked himself for sounding so stupid.

The figure stepped inside, his boots resounding on the wooden floor. Cloud's bird looked up, a tense wark in her throat. She recognized the man from the races that day.

He seemed not to notice or care. "No one's ever beaten me before," he commented.

"Yeah, I've heard that." Cloud got to his feet. "But . . . who are you anyway? I've never even heard you say anything before now."

"I've never needed to." The man stopped when he was still some distance from Cloud. "My moniker tells who I am."

"The Black Shadow?" Cloud frowned. "It makes it sound like you sneak around in the dark."

"It's not far from the truth. I'm only a shadow of a man. Am I really here, or is it only in your mind?" He held up a black-gloved hand, staring at it from behind the mask. "Do I even exist anymore?" he murmured, his voice suddenly weary and filled with cares. It haunted Cloud.

"What are you talking about?" he asked, feeling uncomfortable. "Everyone saw you. They always see you. You have to be there! You . . . you have to be here, now! I'm not going crazy." Who was this person? Cloud had thought the black rider had it all together, but now he was acting so weird, even disturbing.

He could see a grim smirk in the shadow cast by the hat. "No . . . you're not the one who is crazy. I am here. I do always come to the races, but lately I have to wonder how it's even possible. I'm not interested in chocobo racing. It's a frivolous sport."

"Then why do you do it?" Cloud frowned.

"When I'm aware of myself, this is where I find I have gone. It's strange, how far the mind can wander."

Cloud shifted. "Are you saying it's some kind of astral projection?" he exclaimed. Now all he wanted was to get out of here. Why had this guy popped up to talk? Cloud was not an especially good conversationalist unless he knew the person well. And the weight he could sense from the other was chilling him. Something was very wrong here.

"You could call it that. Or a struggle to be free."

"Free?" Cloud repeated.

A nod. "I'm a prisoner of my memories, as you were--though not in the same way as you have been."

And that was not something that just anyone knew about. Cloud stepped forward, concerned as well as bewildered. "Who are you?" he demanded again. "What makes you think you know anything about me?"

"Oh, I know. You're just beginning to find yourself again, to separate Cloud's soul from Zack's."

Cloud stared at the mention of his sorely missed friend. "Zack . . ." He struggled to find his voice. "You knew Zack?!"

"Yes. He was a good man, one of the best."

He could just mean Zack's abilities as a SOLDIER. But Cloud had the feeling that far more was meant, even though the other's tone did not reveal any personal feelings.

". . . Why are you talking to me now?" he demanded. "You said you didn't need to before. Is it just because I beat you?"

"More because of what it represents." A pause. "You're preparing to fight a harsh battle, Cloud. And now it's almost time. Defeat your enemy and prove your worth." He looked up more, though his eyes were hidden by the mask. "And maybe you'll set us both free."

He turned before Cloud could respond. As the cape swirled with the movement, long silver hair swished into view. Then he was walking towards the doorway again.

Cloud paled. Without stopping to think he gave chase. "Sephiroth!" he screamed as the other stepped into the night. He reached out, grabbing for the dark cape. It caught in his hand, shimmered for a brief moment, and vanished. The man was gone.

Cloud slumped against the doorframe, his heart pounding. That had not been the Sephiroth who had burned Nibelheim. It had not been the Sephiroth who had killed Aerith. And it had not been the Sephiroth who was sending Meteor upon them all. It had been a Sephiroth whom Cloud had believed in, and whom he believed in no longer.

A Sephiroth of long ago.