"Oh look, it's the mysterious powerful ally that follows us around but doesn't really join our group!" "That's right, I am the mysterious powerful ally that follows you around but doesn't join your group!"
A common element in shojo stories, particularly of the Magical Girl variety: the secretive figure who appears in a moment of need, aids the heroine, and then vanishes again. He doesn't always do much — a word of advice or encouragement, or a single attack that distracts the enemy for a critical instant — nor does he even have to be even as powerful as the heroine. But his interventions are critical to her survival or the maintenance of her morale.
While his true name and nature are usually concealed in the beginning, the heroine eventually finds out who he is about two-thirds of the way through the series. Subsequently, he often becomes her love interest. For some reason, he usually gets possessed or otherwise has to work against her for a time. Inevitably, he'll end up having to be rescued by the heroine at one point or another.
Subtrope of Mysterious Watcher. Compare Aloof Ally who becomes a member of the team instead of a love interest, the Mysterious Backer, who generally provides support rather than rescues (and typically has more complex goals than a crush), and Enigmatic Minion, the villainous version.
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Tuxedo Mask from Sailor Moon began as 'the guy in the tuxedo that threw roses at monsters' and the reveal of his identity was a big deal. His counterpart from Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon is anything but.
The Moonlight Knight from the Makaiju arc of Sailor Moon R. Then again, he is an expy of Tuxedo Mask himself, who split up from Mamoru's subconscious desire to help Usagi despite having been afflicted with Laser-Guided Amnesia. Once Mamoru recovers his memories, Moonlight Knight reveals himself as Mamoru's other half and disappears, with Mamoru becoming Tuxedo Mask again from then on.
Codename: Sailor V has Kaitou Ace who on a few occasions appears as Sailor V's Mysterious Protector, but he's also the main character of a Show Within a Show and thus is simply an actor who V meets and is aided by a couple of times. Until it turns out he's the Big Bad.
Ferio from Magic Knight Rayearth, particularly in the anime where he sticks around longer and throws Caldina off the girls' trail.
The prince who rescues Utena at the beginning of Revolutionary Girl Utena, and inspires her to become a prince. Not a love interest.
Utena being Utena, this trope is played with to no end. Utena's desire to find and become the prince has influenced her life enormously. The man who does turn out to be the prince is the closest thing the series has to a Big Bad (though he was once the Big Good). And Utena does eventually begin what could be considered a "romance" with her prince, but it's decidedlynon-romantic.
In Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A's, a mysterious masked man shows up to protect, err, the villains. From Nanoha. He wasn't actually a man either, he was shapeshifting twin catgirls. But that's a detail.
He didn't have their best interests at heart, either.
Limone in Wedding Peach. Though here he ends up with Yuri aka Angel Lily, The Smart Guy, and not Wedding Peach herself — she ends up with Yosuke/Viento.
Far from romantic, and the series is heavily Seinen, but the Skull Knight in Berserk is the reason that Guts decided to go back to the Band of the Hawks after leaving Griffith, and is the only reason that Guts and Casca make it out of the Eclipse and the Band of the Hawks arc alive.
Female-ish, non-shoujo example: Miyu from Mai-Otome has helped Arika out of a jam or three before simply disappearing to goddess-knows-where.
Tamahome of Fushigi Yuugi sort of falls into this trope at first. "Sort of" because Mysterious Protectors don't usually ask for money back, and because we get to know who he is soon enough.
Nakago briefly plays this role for Yui after he swoops down and saves her from being gang-raped by a bunch of thugs when she was searching for Miaka. Subverted, however, because he lets her believe that something did happen to her so that she would be more willing to accept the role of Priestess of Seiryuu and do his bidding.
Invoked in Mahou Sensei Negima!; when Negi was a (younger) child, he viewed his father like this, to the point of getting himself in trouble so that his father would come save him. The one time that things truly do get serious, his father does show up to save him. And then he has to leave again.
Negi's cousin Nekane sorta takes this role in Negima!?.
Meta Knight from the Kirbyanime, at least for the protecting part.
A Shonen example would be Phoenix from Metal Fight Beyblade, who is later revealed to be Ginga Hagane's though to be dead father, Ryusei
Played straight in one episode of Pokémon, until the end when the cloaked hero is revealed to be Gary. Who else?
Kakeru, the protagonist of the sports manga Area no Kishi, stopped playing football in grade school after injuring another player, and has been unable to bring himself to play again since. After being chewed out by his older brother Suguru for holding himself back, Kakeru encounters a mysterious masked football player in a nearby park, who challenges him to a one on one night game. Though Kakeru was unsure of the player's identity after leaving, the challenge helped to re-awaken his love for playing the sport.
Air Gear has Ringo dress up in a swimsuit and a variety of items from the school drama department closet, takes the chip out of her Air Treks, and calls herself Swimsuit/Croissant Mask to help Kogarasumaru in its early days. She dons the disguise (which fools the more idiotic characters but not the more intelligent) in order to hide her awesome abilities from Ikki.
Yami Yugi is this for Tea at the start of the Yu-Gi-Oh! manga - for a long time, due to the circumstances, she never saw his face, and she ended up falling in love with his voice. It was only later that she realised that he was actually the alter-ego of her childhood friend. Also, he can count as this for Yugi as well - in the early chapters, Yami would possess Yugi when he was needed and he'd deal with the threat...meaning that to Yugi, he would suddenly black out and wake up to find that whatever problem was stressing him out is gone somehow.
In a rather odd variation, odder for being in one of the bloodiest and mindscrewySeinen out there, Ran and Ichise Texhnolyze are this from each other. Ran, resident Mysterious Waif, is the more traditional version, distant and mysterious, appearing to guide or help Ichise out suddenly at pivotal and critical moments, before fading away into the background, remaining almost anonymous until at least halfway through the anime. Ichise, on the other hand, is dark and quietDeterminator who tends to show up mysteriously at the right moments through more sheer luck than anything else (while all of Ran's appearances are intentional, as far as we know).
Suite Pretty Cure ♪: Cure Muse. Who is not Seiren. She eventually unmasked herself and joins the Pretty Cures in Episode 36.
In Transformers: Robots In Disguise, Ultra Magnus is this, though his attitude toward them is less mysterious and more "I don't like the Autobots but... I guess I shouldn't let them get vaporized."
Zero fulfills a similar role for Nunnally in her manga spinoff: Nightmare of Nunnally... sort of. He shows up out of nowhere whenever Nemo is in the middle of a battle, and usually brings about chaos, allowing Nemo to win or escape. It can be seen most obviously near the end, where Zero acts as a Supporting Leader along with Euphie, Suzaku, and their combined armies.
Syaoran Li from Cardcaptor Sakura qualifies this trope exactly once: while capturing The Thunder card and Sakura recognizes him from her dream but does not yet know what he can do. Syaoran during the capture of The Power card would almost qualify this trope - except Sakura and everyone else was frozen due to his Time Card usage and thus, they did not see him come to the rescue. In all other instances, because Syaoran already revealed his intentions and because Sakura already knows about him and his goals (Kero explained it to her), Syaoran does not qualify for this trope.
Library War: Iku Kasahara was inspired to join the Library Defense Force by her "prince," who came to her rescue when the bookstore she was patronizing was raided and saved the book she had waited years to finally buy. Not knowing his name, he is a mystery to her... Although it is revealed early on that he is actually Atsushi Doujo, her instructor/teammate with whom she has Belligerent Sexual Tension.
"The Fox" in Floyd Gottredson's Mickey Mouse comic Death Valley.
In Coraline, the Cat followed and watched over Coraline for some time before making himself known to her. And when he does, he drops hints that there are more sinister things at work in the Other World.
Haku in Spirited Away certainly counts. He helped Chihiro several times throughout the course of the movie, remarking that despite not remembering anything else about his past, he remembers her. It is later revealed that when Chihiro was a child, she fell into his river and he had rescued her.
Film - Live Action
Lo, from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon plays to this niche admirably in an early fight sequence. He obviously lacks the firepower to stop any of the major fighters of the setting, but he only needs to provide a few seconds of distraction to allow his love, Action Girl Jen Yu, to escape.
Sailor Nothing subverts this. In the backstory and beginning, Magnificent Kamen would show up to help the heroine when she's fighting monsters she can't handle herself, but he's a scheming bastard who has no qualms about killing civilians and even ex-Sailors who have seen too much or outlived their usefulness, and towards the end actually turns out to be one of the same kind of monsters the heroine has been fighting.
Welstiel Massing from The Saga of the Noble Dead is also a subversion- he appears at convenient intervals, gives Magiere much needed advice about fighting vampires but is actually training her to fetch an Artifact of Doom for him. Oh, and he's her half-brother too. And himself a vampire, albeit one who has learned to sustain himself by magic rather than feeding.
Mr Carrisford in A Little Princess watches over Sara without her realizing that it was the man next door to the school who was secretly delivering presents and gifts up to her room to keep her spirits up.
In The Chronicles of the Deryni, Morgan and Duncan are met a few times by a mysterious man who appears to be Saint Camber. In High Deryni, this person warns them about other Deryni mages who might challenge them to test their powers. In the climax of High Deryni, he reveals himself to be Stefan Coram, Deryni mage and member of the secretive Camberian Council.
In the next trilogy, he is replaced by yet another Camber-clone, who implies there's a whole society of them. Since our heroes know Coram is dead, they speculate about whether these subsequent appearances may be by Camber himself, though one such visitor denies this to Kelson and Dhugal.
Sir Sé Trelawney, by this time a fully avowed Knight of the Anvil, makes a brief and stealthy appearance to shoot a single well-placed arrow in the effort to save Brion from assassination in Childe Morgan. Mission accomplished, he quickly disappears.
The Haitian from Heroes could've been the Trope Namer. Tall, Black, and never speaking, nobody had a clue what this dude's agenda was. Just when it looked like he was about to finish Claire (the immortal cheerleader), turns out he's her appointed protector.
Angel from season 1 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Fitting, considering Joss is a fan of Sailor Moon and the first few seasons of Buffy can be seen as a warped, live-action magical girl show. In season two, he even gets in on Tuxedo Mask's the "main character has to stab him to save the world" bit. Of course, later he turned into a Bad Ass hero.
Non-shojo version: Both the Gold Ranger of Power Rangers Zeo and the Phantom Ranger of Power Rangers Turbo, who would appear to save the Rangers and then vanish. They each wound up having to be rescued by the Rangers they zipped in to protect. It was in that arc that we learned who the Gold Ranger was, and almost learned who the Phantom Ranger was.
A few Rangers would also play this role for an episode or two before joining the team proper, such as the Omega Ranger of Power Rangers S.P.D. and the Gold and Silver Rangers of Power Rangers RPM. Played with in Power Rangers Samurai with Antonio, the Gold Samurai Ranger: he tried to use this shtick as his introduction because he's an Attention Whore, but at one point had to turn tail and run from the Rangers because they tracked him down before he was ready to reveal himself.
Doctor Who, "The Girl in the Fireplace". Inverted in that we see it from the side of the Mysterious Protector himself.
In Misfits, the mysterious "Superhoodie" keeps showing up to save the Misfits, and seems to know an impossible amount of information about them. He's actually Simon's Future Badass counterpart.
In a gender-flipped version, Ruby from Supernatural hung around stalking the boys for her first few episodes. She eventually did swoop in and save them Buffy-style from a group of demons. It even seemed she was being developed as a potential Love Interest before it was eventually revealed that she was really a demon working for her own endgame and not a hunter.
In Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, this trope is subverted. A major, presumed dead antagonist from the previous game actually plays this role to the hilt with the new protagonist, Micaiah. The Black Knight almost takes this role to ludicrous levels, never being content to just simply make a normal entrance: he always uses magic to directly teleport to his destination — which is often right next to his charge. His statistics are so broken in terms of gameplay that using him almost ensures victory, making him stand out from members of this trope that can only act in a supporting capacity.
Subverted in Betrayal at Krondor: After being captured and brought to the fortress in the heart of enemy territory, Gorath and Owyn are mysteriously set free - the doors to their cells open by magic. Later attempts to discern the identity of their mysterious saviour turn out to be fruitless. In retrospect, it seems obvious that the one responsible was the Big Bad Makala, a powerful magician who needed the protagonists free so that they could unwittingly carry a false message to their allies.
Fallout has a perk which causes a "Mysterious Stranger" to appear and assist the character randomly in battles.
Fallout: New Vegas also has 'Miss Fortune', essentially a female version of the Mysterious Stranger dressed in a Vegas Showgirl getup, and causes collossally bad luck to occur to a foe instead of outright killing them.
The Mysterious Stranger can also occasionally serve as an inversion as he is infamous for accidentally shooting the player in the back with sometimes fatal results.
Maybe that's because if he appears when you fire a shotgun or an explosive in tight quarters you often hit HIM
Early on in New Vegas, if the player is having trouble, Victor the robot cowboy will show up to help fight off your enemies. While he accredits this to being a generally good-natured robot (which he is), the truth is that Mr. House is using him to make sure that you make it to Vegas.
In Honest Hearts, you can learn about Randall Dean Clark, a former US Marine turned survivalist who eventually became this for a bunch of children who would later become the Sorrow, watching over them and giving them supplies and books while remaining unseen to them. In the end, you find his skeleton on the Red Gate as he was about to die from a lung disease, so he left a personalized message to each child, telling them he would be silent but still watch over them, and climbed to his resting spot, dying to the elements. His legend lives as the Father in the Caves.
Mega Man Star Force, like the Doctor Who example above, is shown through the eyes of the Mysterious Protector himself. This occurs as he (Mega Man Geo-Omega) has to protect Luna Platz from danger. This is reversed three times. First, in the first game as she merges with one of the evil FM-Ian warriors, forcing him to battle her. Then in the second game when the OOPart turns him into a wild EM wave being, causing him to attack her (he gains control over the object). Then in the third game where Jokerkills her before he (Geo-Omega) can save her.
Mickey Mouse (Yes, the Mickey Mouse) serves this role during certain boss fights in Kingdom Hearts II. Get killed during certain encounters and you have the option of having King Mickey rescue you. (He is far more Bad Ass than you'd expect any Disney character to be.) Now, obviously Sora, Donald, and Goofy would recognize the King when they see him (He's kind of hard to miss, even with the ridiculous Black Cloak), but he always seems to teleport away immediately after rescuing Sora, so it's never made quite clear if Sora is aware the King is following him around. His rescues are more of a gameplay mechanic rather than an actual element of the plot.
Unfortunately, the chances of him appearing in later fights goes down every time he rescues you. If he's saved your ass once or twice, he's unlikely to do it again, possibly because he's becoming too worn out between world-traveling and fighting (though again, it's a gameplay mechanic, so it's possible that the programmers simply didn't want to promote too much laziness as he is rather powerful and is sometimes better suited to the fight than Sora and Co). He can't actully kill anything however, his move list lacks a finishing move which is required for the final blow on bosses, planting him even further into this trope.
Lloyd Irving, the protagonist from Tales of Symphonia, plays this part to Genis and Mithos in an optional sidequest. Mithos being a powerless tyke and Genis being a decent mage but not the best fighter in the world although Mithos is really Ygdrassil, the Big Bad Knight Templar Fallen Angel type fellow saving them from monsters and the such.
In Final Fantasy VI, Shadow will join and leave the team at various points in the game, coming and going as he pleases. You'll eventually have an opportunity to add him to your permanent roster, though.
One shows up during one of the first missions of X2: The Threat, if your ship takes too much damage.
Doug Rattman AKA "The Ratman" plays this trope in the Portal series.
Ada Wong runs interference from the shadows for Leon's various mishaps in Resident Evil 4. The "Separate Ways" campaign (available on all major versions except for the original GameCube release) shows how she managed to be at the right time and right place to help Leon in the main game.
In Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening, The Messenger, one of the sapient Darkspawn serving the Architect can become this depending on the player's choices. The epilogue will mention a "mysterious hooded stranger with a lisp" rescuing travelers in danger, albeit accidentally spreading the taint in some cases.
Rider in Fate/stay night when she finally gets to move into the main storyline. Even then she's not actually in focus a lot of the time, preferring to be invisible. But she saves Shirou several times and then vanishes without really telling him anything. As for the love interest part... Well, it's pretty clear she's at least somewhat attracted to him.
In Umineko no Naku Koro ni, Gretel/Ange Ushiromiya is an odd example because she's both female and non-romantic (Because of her trueidentity). However, she matches this better than Aloof Ally in the types of interventions she does, in the secret identity aspect, and in the fact that she makes it expressly clear in the beginning that she sides with Battler, not just that her goals are similar. Also a little odd in that she's not saved when she gets into trouble and becomes Battler's Greatest Failure.