Final Fantasy VII

Who Is That Masked Man?

By LuckyLadybug

Notes: The characters are not mine (except Pala), and the story is! This is complete and utter crack. It was inspired by a small bit in Crisis Core where Zack speaks with someone who was rescued by the black rider during a monster attack. When asked, Zack says he's familiar with the rider. And this happened. Thanks to Kaze and Lisa for plot help! The prompts Nocturne (what do you do in the dark of night where no one sees) at 18Coda and Fifth wheel at FF Love, helped too.

Ever since monsters had begun to terrorize Midgar in full force, SOLDIER had been kept extremely busy. On bad days, the men could be running from sector to sector, destroying vicious creatures and protecting the people at all hours of the day and night. And sometimes they needed help.

That was when the black rider came in. He was only seen at night, and as if on cue, only when the monster problem was at its worst. He made short work of the creatures, saving anyone in danger of being harmed by them. And then he would fade into the night before anyone could get his name. Not that he would have given it at all; he seemed to prefer being a man of mystery in every sense of the word.

But after increasing appearances, and even saving some employees, Shinra grew extremely curious about him. Who was this strange vigilante and what were his motives? Was he seeking justice and righteousness, or something else altogether? Using the partially true explanation of wanting to find and reward him for his services, they directed some of their forces to search for any clues to his identity. But it seemed that there was nothing to be found. No one knew anything about him, save for more death-defying tales of bravery and rescue.

Zack had been following the stories with interest ever since the man had first appeared. At the moment he was engrossed in the local newspaper, the day's work unfinished on his desk.

Sephiroth's expression was stern as he observed. "You aren't done yet," he said.

"I know," Zack said, "but I'll come in a minute! Come on, Seph, aren't you curious at all about this guy?" He peeked at his best friend over the top of the newspaper, blinking his lavender eyes.

Sephiroth grunted. "He's probably only someone determined to get attention in whatever way possible," he said, "and he just so happened to prefer these methods of derring-do."

"Aww. That takes all the fun out of it!" Zack protested. "You don't think he wants to help people?"

"Who knows." Sephiroth looked back to his computer screen. "Most people wouldn't be willing to do something for nothing."

"You're so suspicious of everyone, Seph!" Zack mock-whimpered. He folded up the newspaper, depositing it on his desk for later use. "It doesn't seem like he even wants to be found out. He wears black all up and down, even a mask. Nobody even knows his name!"

"Of course. What better way to draw attention to yourself than to be mysterious?" Sephiroth began to type. "Then people will begin to wonder who you are and continue to craft all kinds of ridiculous possibilities."

Zack frowned. "I didn't think of it like that. But that doesn't mean it's what this guy wants!" he rushed on.

"No, it doesn't," Sephiroth agreed. "But I wouldn't be surprised."

Zack suddenly smirked. "So is that why you're mysterious, Seph?" he asked.

Sephiroth raised an eyebrow. "I," he said, "am not mysterious."

"Sure you are!" Zack said. "You don't talk about yourself, you're serious . . ."

"I am unsociable," Sephiroth interrupted. "That does not equal mysteriousness."

"No, but it helps!" Zack chirped. "And people are always wondering what you're like under all that cold, stern stuff."

Sephiroth grunted. "You're getting off the subject," he said.

"There you go again!" Zack declared. "See, you don't want to talk about yourself."

"That is irrelevant."

Zack jumped up without warning, beginning to pace the room. "I want to find out who this guy is!" he declared.

"There are already SOLDIERs who have that assignment," Sephiroth answered, relieved for the topic change. "Mostly those who don't have anything better to do." Personally he found it ridiculous. The black rider seemed harmless enough. There was always the chance that he could be a Wutaian spy, but so far there was not any proof of that, and the General hated to see SOLDIERs chasing down a vigilante. As far as he was concerned, that should be left up to the Turks or the Shinra army, if anyone was going to investigate.

Zack gave him a mournful look. "But what if he is a threat and needs to be found out?" he persisted.

Sephiroth was unmoved. "Haven't you been indicating that you think he's a benevolent protector of the people?"

Zack looked sheepish. "Well . . . yeah, he probably is!" he said. "I just want an excuse to go look for the guy."

Sephiroth grunted. "I figured as much."

"We could go at night, when we're off-duty," Zack suggested. "He only pops up at night anyway."

"No, thank you," Sephiroth responded, his tone flat and matter-of-fact. "I don't have the interest, and you yourself would never have the patience for a stakeout in the sectors where the black rider has been seen."

"We wouldn't have to stay in one place!" Zack protested. "We could just keep walking all around until we saw him."

Sephiroth gave him a stern look.

". . . Or not." Zack's shoulders slumped. "Come on, Seph! It wouldn't be any fun by myself!"

"It's debatable whether it would be fun at all," Sephiroth retorted.

"At least we'd get a nice walk!" Zack said with a wild gesture.

Sephiroth let out a noticeable sigh. "Alright," he said. "One night. That is all."

"Yes!" Zack exclaimed, pumping the air with a fist. "You won't regret this, Seph ol' pal!" he grinned.

"That's debatable, too." Sephiroth focused on the computer screen. Once again Zack had worn down his resolve. He really was getting too soft.

As it turned out, the black rider was elusive that night, which Sephiroth had suspected would be the case. He and Zack did learn of more tales of rescue from some passers-by, and confirmation of the sectors where the rider was most often seen. But Midgar was quiet, the monsters either staying out of the city limits or else just avoiding the people inside while they skulked in the shadows. After a late dinner that Zack had insisted on, the two were now en route back to the base.

Zack sighed in weary exasperation, placing his hands behind his head. "Well, at least we know where he hangs out," he said.

"Which other SOLDIERs have already learned," Sephiroth grunted.

"Hey, do you ever wonder about his chocobo?" Zack asked. "I mean, black ones are pretty rare. Does he really go all the way to the farm to get one? Or does he keep it here in the city? I keep Pala on the base." He blinked. "And hey, speaking of her, did you give her a rub-down lately, Seph?" he asked. "A couple of times I've gone in and she's already settled and everything."

"She's your responsibility," Sephiroth grunted. "No, I haven't done anything with her."

"Huh." Zack shrugged. "Maybe it was Cloud then. Whoever it was sure got her all relaxed. It almost looked like she'd been given a bath."

". . . In answer to your question, I haven't ever wondered about the black rider's bird," Sephiroth said. "But it would take a while to go to the farm every time there was a problem. Then he would still need to ride back to the city in time to save whoever was in danger. It's far more likely that the chocobo is here in Midgar, probably at his house."

"Yeah!" Zack said. "And there hasn't been a citywide search for a black chocobo, has there?"

"Unfortunately, yes," Sephiroth grunted. "They haven't found one yet."

"How come I haven't seen those reports?" Zack frowned with a mock-wounded expression.

"We shouldn't concern ourselves with such trivial matters." Only if it was later learned that the rider was indeed dangerous would Sephiroth take an interest. As long as the vigilante did not get in SOLDIER's way, Sephiroth could not care less.

"I want to come out tomorrow night," Zack said.

"Then you'll be coming alone," Sephiroth said, his tone flat. "I promised one night. Tomorrow I'll be working late, anyway."

"Even after five?" Zack looked up at the stern general.

"I doubt I'll have everything finished by then." By now they had almost walked back to the base. The lights from the Shinra tower gleamed nearby, further illuminating their path.

"Darn!" Zack said, snapping his fingers. Then he blinked as an idea came to him. "Hey, what if I helped you, Seph?" he said. "Then we could both come out afterwards!"

Sephiroth shook his head, massaging his eyes in a tired way. "This is the yearly report I have to give as the General," he replied. "I have to do it on my own."

"Oh." Zack sighed, stretching his arms in front of him. "Man, that sounds like a pain."

"It is," Sephiroth acknowledged. "I dread it each year." In fact, part of the reason he had gone with Zack tonight had been to put off working more on it. It always stressed him, especially looking up all the necessary information. Something would be elusive every year and he would not be able to track it down for ages.

"Well, maybe the night after tomorrow, then!" Zack said hopefully.

Sephiroth gave him a Look. "You never give up, do you?"

"Then I wouldn't be me!" Zack grinned. As they arrived at the gates, he flashed his ID at the sentry before hopping through onto the compound.

Sephiroth followed suit--though without the hopping.

The next night Sephiroth was hard at work when Zack was ready to leave. As the brunet peeked in through the door, the rapid clicking of the keyboard was very audible. Seph was staring at the screen, the monitor's reflection in his glasses. He did not look up, either too involved in his work to notice or else noticing but feeling he needed to keep working.

"I'm going now, Seph," Zack said, loud enough that he hoped to break through the older man's concentration.

Seph started, glancing at Zack over the top of the monitor. "Alright," he said.

"I'll check in when I get back," Zack promised.

Seph gave a vague nod, already focusing on the screen again.

Zack sighed to himself, pulling the door shut once more.

He was feeling lonely as he left the base shortly afterwards. Even though the search the past night had been fruitless, he had enjoyed spending the time with Seph. And he thought that Seph had liked it at least somewhat, despite finding the reason for the outing preposterous. It had been a pleasant night for a walk and dinner, and without monsters afoot it had been relaxing. By himself he did not think he would stay out long, especially if it looked like this evening would turn out the same as the past night.

And indeed, it did seem that everything was calm again. The people walked by normally, unconcerned of an attack, and the animals also seemed nonchalant. Zack yawned after a while, putting a hand over his mouth to hide it.

"What a boring night," he mumbled to himself. Aerith would have already left the church by now, so he could not visit her unless he went to her house--and her mother usually scared him away from there. He knew she did not like him, and he always found himself getting tongue-tied in her presence. Very few people had that effect on the smooth-talking and cheerful Zack Fair.

Maybe he should go back to the base and see if Cloud was done with his shift on guard duty. He had invited Cloud to come with him tonight, but Cloud had not been free to leave. Even if he was still working, Zack could chat with him for a while. And if he was off, maybe they could go grab some food and a late movie.

But a scream rent the air as he rounded a corner. An unfortunate woman tore past him, several vicious beasts in hot pursuit. Zack stared in surprise at the spectacle. Then he grabbed his sword, adjusting to the sudden change of plans.

"Don't worry, I'm coming!" he called. Chasing after the hungry monsters, he swung his sword at the one nearest to him. It snarled in pain, whirling to face this new opponent. As it lunged, Zack attacked again. Having been quicker, Zack was soon triumphant.

The second one also went down fast, too intent on the hunt to fully focus on Zack. But the other two were still running after the woman, and they were gaining on her.

Out of nowhere a lariat swirled, catching both beasts squarely around their shoulders. They yelped in shock as the loop was pulled taut, bringing them side by side. Though they struggled, it did not loosen.

Both Zack and the woman were staring in the direction of the lasso. A chocobo leaped into view from around the corner, the street lights overhead shining on every raven-colored feather. Astride it was a man also dressed all in black. In his hand was the other end of the rope. He fastened it around the lamppost, then turned to depart.

Zack came to life. "Hey wait!" he cried, running forward. This was the black rider, just who he had been hoping to see. Now he had a chance to really find out what was going on!

But the man did not intend to be found out. He pulled on the reins, turning the chocobo to the left. Pressing against its sides with his legs, he signaled it to flee. With a loud wark the bird tore past, several black feathers coming free from the force of the run.

The woman just gaped at Zack as he chased after them. "What about these things?!" she yelped, pointing at the snarling beasts.

"Call Shinra to come get them," Zack called back. "They should be secure for now!" He did not want to lose the rider now, when he was so close. Just in this short amount of time, the man and his bird were far ahead.

The chocobo was sprinting at its quickest pace, calling out with loud warks as it went. Zack frowned in confusion, running as fast as he could to keep up.

"It looks like a Dashing chocobo," he said to himself. "And it sounds just like Pala. But that's impossible. She isn't black. And what the heck would the black rider be doing riding her?!"

Now they were tearing past the business district. Late shoppers stumbled to a halt, their eyes wide at the sight of a man in black being chased by a lone SOLDIER yelling for him to stop. Up ahead, a fountain seemed to be malfunctioning. Water was pouring onto the surrounding sidewalk. The rider tugged on the reins, wanting to avoid the spray. But the chocobo barreled right through, continuing to wark.

Zack ran around the confused fountain. A couple more feathers were floating in the water. Whatever was coloring the bird black was fading. Its true hue of yellow was now visible.

"It is Pala!" Zack exclaimed. There was now no doubt of it. He had recognized her from the first wark.

But there was no time for disbelief. The chocobo and rider were whipping around another corner. Again Zack gave chase, a whole new slew of questions bouncing through his mind. How on earth would the black rider have access to Pala? And what had he done to make her feathers go temporarily black?

The rider seemed to be having trouble controlling her now. They were passing a tire shop, which featured many such objects on display. Pala swerved, crashing right into the two stacks. Wheels flew and rolled in every direction. Zack yelped, diving out of the way of five that went past all in a row. Then his eyes narrowed. He lunged, leaping into the air. He was taking a chance, but he would go for it.

He crashed on Pala's back, wrapping his arms around the black rider. "Just wait a minute!" he yelled.

They both fell off, landing amidst the tires. Pala, free of her burden, stopped and warked as she watched. The two men were struggling with each other, rolling and flailing as each tried to attain the upper hand.

"Hold still already!" Zack ordered.

The rider reached up, shoving him in the chest. The cape, which was by now a rumpled mess, pulled up to reveal long and smooth locks hidden underneath.

Zack stared. "Can't be," he murmured. He grabbed at the other's wrist, reaching with his free hand to tear away the mask. Glassy green eyes blinked up at him.

"Seph?!" he burst out. This was too shocking to process. "Seph, you're the black rider?!"

Sephiroth grunted. He blinked again, as if trying to focus on Zack. "What are you talking about?" he demanded.

Zack rocked back in disbelief. "Seph, look at yourself!" he said, wildly gesturing. "You're all in black, and you dyed Pala's feathers or something . . . ! What the heck's going on?!" He put his hands on his hips. "Is that why you've been so uninterested in this whole thing, because you knew you were the one SOLDIER's been looking for?!" He shook his head. "I never would've thought you had a secret desire to be a vigilante."

"I don't." Sephiroth began to pull himself into a sitting position. "This is ridiculous," he muttered. "I was working on the report. What am I doing here?" His eyes widened as he stared down at himself. He was all in black, as Zack had said, but it was not his usual clothes. It looked like what the black rider wore. And now a chocobo was wandering over, half-yellow and half-black. . . .

"Wait a minute," Zack exclaimed. "You were working on the report? That's the last thing you remember?"

"Yes." Sephiroth frowned. "I leaned back to look at what I'd gotten down so far, and I was resting my eyes."

"You fell asleep!" Zack declared. "You were sleepwalking as the black rider!"

Sephiroth leaned forward, massaging his eyes. "Do you realize how inane that sounds?" he said.

"If you've got a better explanation, I'd like to hear it!" Zack said. "It all fits! That's why Pala looked like she'd been bathed before, too--you were washing her off after having her fixed up to be the black rider's bird!"

Pala warked, as if in confirmation.

"But why?" Sephiroth demanded. "Why would I do this, even if I was asleep?"

Zack gave a helpless shrug. "I have no idea, pal," he said. "You probably don't even know yourself."

"That," Sephiroth grunted, "I can agree with." Again he surveyed the scene, horror and disgust beginning to wash over him. This was not fitting for the General to be doing. This was ludicrous! He was not a vigilante; he did not even need to be. As the SOLDIER General, he was already a protector of the people. He did not need to sneak in the shadows like a Wutaian ninja.

"Unless it really is a secret desire," Zack smirked in mischief.

"It isn't." Seph's voice gained a definite edge, warning Zack to drop the subject. For once Zack obeyed. There were other aspects he was curious about as well.

He shook his head. "What I wonder now is, Are you the only black rider, Seph?" he asked. "Or were you just imitating the original?"

"Where on earth would I get such an idea if there was not already a black rider?" Sephiroth retorted.

"Too much Masked Avenger on TV?" Zack blinked innocently.

The look Seph gave him said clearly that he was not amused.

Within a few moments they managed to set right the tire display. During that time, Pala went back to the fountain and walked under it a second time, removing the rest of the black coloring from her feathers. Then she headed back to where the SOLDIERs were, spreading her wings and shaking herself dry.

Zack looked up as she came back. "That's more like it," he grinned.

Pala warked, pleased with herself.

"Let's hurry back to the base before something else goes wrong," Sephiroth said in irritation. He was wrapping the mask and hat in a bundle with the cape. But the other clothes he would have to keep on for now. Hopefully in the dark no one would notice his strange attire. Reaching up, he unbuttoned the shirt three-fourths of the way down.

"Are we gonna ride Pala when she's still wet?" Zack blinked.

"It would be faster than just walking and leading her up there," Sephiroth said.

Zack shrugged. "Okay then," he said. Grabbing the reins for balance, he began to climb onto her back. "If I'm in front, maybe I can help hide what you're wearing."

Sephiroth nodded. That was a good plan. He climbed on behind Zack, holding onto both him and the bundle.

Feeling the snap of the reins, Pala tore around a corner. Zack yelped. Sephiroth crashed forward against him.

"I'm not sure I'll ever get used to that," Zack said sheepishly as Pala flew down the streets.

In this way it did not take long for them to reach the base. Zack swallowed hard as the guard came into view.

"Boy, I wish you could remember how you've been getting on and off the base as the black rider," Zack said.

"I wish I could too," Sephiroth grunted. "I probably left normally and then put on these ridiculous clothes once I was away."

But at least they did not have anything to worry about in that respect. The guard, not seeming to find it odd that they were astride Zack's chocobo, said only, "Oh! Welcome back, sirs!" and waved them through as they presented their ID cards. Zack grinned, waving back, while Sephiroth gave a single nod of acknowledgment.

Once they were past and heading for the stable, Sephiroth said in a stern undertone, "You cannot tell anyone about this."

Zack blinked in mock surprise. "But Seph!" he exclaimed. "Doesn't Shinra need to know?"

Sephiroth's shocked and almost horrified expression melted as he realized Zack was not serious.

"'Course I wouldn't tell anyone," Zack said as he brought Pala to a halt. "You can tell them yourself, pal, if you feel like it."

"And I never will." Sephiroth climbed down onto the grass planted for any chocobos on base.

"What about Cloud?" Zack chirped, hopping off as well. Keeping hold of the reins, he turned to lead Pala inside the stable. "I told him I was going out to look tonight. He'll be wondering how it went. And oh wow! That lady saw me chasing after you!" He looked back to Seph. Suddenly the possible complications seemed overwhelming. To protect Seph's honor, this could not be allowed to get out. A sleepwalking General was not something of which the public needed to be aware.

". . . I'm not going to ask," Seph said, his tone flat. "But she saw you pursuing the black rider. If you feel so inclined, you only need to tell Cloud and anyone else that you were chasing him, but he got away. Which is true as far as I am concerned." He would never go out as the black rider again. It did not matter what he had to do in order to stop himself from sleepwalking in the future. It had probably happened because his mind had been so full of thoughts of the real black rider. He refused to believe that he had invented that persona.

"Yeah, I guess," Zack said, taking Pala inside. "Gosh, I hope nobody saw us at the tire place. . . ."

Sephiroth followed him to the doorway. "Do you think someone did?" he asked, urgency slipping into his voice. He gripped the doorframe, his eyes narrowed.

Zack gave a helpless shrug as he led Pala into her stall. "I dunno," he said. "It almost looked like there was a shadow at one point, but I could be wrong."

He could be, but with their luck? It was not likely.

Sephiroth ran a hand over his eyes. What a nightmare.

Somehow Sephiroth managed to return to his quarters without being seen. He promptly pulled off the damp black rider clothes, exchanging them for his own dark pants and a comfortable open coat. Then he sank down in the computer chair. After typing in his password at the login prompt, he found himself looking at the unfinished report, just as he had left it. That was good; he would not have to rewrite anything. But he sank back in the chair, passing a hand over his eyes again. He was so tired, both physically and emotionally. He had been exhausted enough to fall asleep sitting here, and getting up and running all over Midgar on a chocobo had not helped his body any. The thought of working more on the report right now was almost unbearable. It was not due in the morning, so perhaps he should leave it for tonight.

The door opened. "Seph?" He could hear Zack coming in, shutting the door behind him.

He looked out through his fingers. "What."

"There's something I think you need to see on TV. I turned it on while I was changing my clothes."

That brought him fully to attention. "Did someone record me?" he frowned, removing his hand from his eyes as he sat up straight.

"Don't think so," Zack said, walking to the small television set in the corner. Sephiroth rarely used it except for the news, and he and Zack both knew that it was often biased and untrue to begin with, so he usually was not interested in that, either. Shinra always made sure to slant things in their favor.

Now Sephiroth sighed, moving to look at the screen. As the picture came on, a reporter was standing in Sector 8. "Live" flashed at the top and bottom of the screen.

"The black rider has just been seen tearing down the street!" the reporter announced. "He defeated two monsters earlier, rescuing a woman who had become their prey . . ."

"That was you," Zack amended. "But hey, you were pretty cool!"

". . . And now has saved two children. He's already out of sight, but his chocobo has dropped these feathers." She held up two downy feathers as the camera went in for a closeup. Both were jet black.

Zack gave a low whistle. "Well, I guess that's the answer," he said. "This is live, so there really is another black rider."

"I never doubted it," Sephiroth said.

"Aww, it would be great, though, if you'd been the one to start it!" Zack grinned. "I mean, yeah, running around on a chocobo's not your style, but the black rider's only been helping people."

"He can keep helping them in his way," Sephiroth retorted. "We'll assist in our own."

Zack sighed. "Yeah . . ." He looked back, his spikes whipping with the motion. "So! What are you gonna do now, Seph?"

Sephiroth looked back to the computer. Making sure the document was saved, he closed it. "I'm going to bed," he said.

"Without eating?!" Zack blinked. Seph had gone right to work on the report today once the normal work routine had been completed. He had not taken time for dinner. In fact, that may have been the case for the last several nights.

"I'd rather not." Sephiroth stood up, then leaned down for the mouse. After clicking out of the word processor, he chose Shut Down from the Start menu.

Zack frowned. "Hey, maybe that's why you've been sleepwalking," he said. "You probably haven't eaten the other times you've been working on this thing, have you?"

Sephiroth straightened up, a frown gracing his own features. "I don't think so," he grunted. Last night Zack had taken him to dinner . . . and the black rider had not made an appearance.

"Then you've gotta eat something!" Zack exclaimed. "I bet your inner black rider won't come out again if you do!" He crossed the room to Seph's mini-fridge.

Sephiroth watched him, half in amusement. "So instead of wanting to help people, the black rider was just hungry," he said flatly.

"Who knows!" Zack said. "Maybe he was just working up more of an appetite. Not that he'd need to."

Sephiroth shook his head. He would humor Zack for now, especially in light of the previous evening. If he did not sleepwalk again, he would have to make certain that he did not skip another dinner.

At the edge of Sector 8, a figure in black pulled his chocobo around a corner. He was breathing heavily, his heart thumping in his ears. Blue eyes gleamed behind the dark mask, faintly visible in the night. Reaching up, he pulled the wide-brimmed hat lower, hoping that all the blond spikes were still concealed.

This should help, he thought to himself. No one will ever know General Sephiroth was sleepwalking.

The figure snapped the reins. The black chocobo obediently trotted off into the shadows.