Published: November 4, 2018
Once again, Asuna was a captive.
First, she had been trapped in the death game of Sword Art Online for two years.
Second, she had been transferred to Alfheim Online and imprisoned within a cage at the top of the World Tree by Nobuyuki Sugou, a corrupt executive in her father's company who wanted to force her to marry him.
This time was different.
Before, she could work toward freeing herself. She became one of the strongest players in SAO and the Vice Commander of its premiere guild so that she could go home again. With all of her fighting abilities sealed away in ALO, she had used stealth and guile to almost escape by herself. Even in failing, she had helped Kirito come to her rescue, which he couldn't have managed otherwise, save perhaps with the intervention of Kayaba's digital ghost.
But this wasn't the virtual world. Everything was terrifyingly real, and now she was completely powerless to save herself.
She had been kidnapped. She couldn't quite remember how it had happened, only that she must have been drugged. That was bad enough, but then her captor revealed to her that magic wasn't just limited to the fantastic realms of Aincrad and Alfheim. She hadn't believed it, not at first, and tried to force her way past him to freedom. But he raised a hand, said some strange words, and she suddenly felt her strength fading away. And somehow, her kidnapper was starting to look a lot bigger...
"Or am I… shrinking? It can't be!"
But unfortunately for Asuna, it was. As her strength faded and her size dwindled, her legs buckled despite any effort to stay on her feet. As she slumped down, Asuna caught a glimpse of her hands turning very pale as her body appeared to freeze and soon take on a new texture, making it seem like porcelain. If that didn't alarm her enough, the sight of joints forming in her fingers certainly shocked her. She screamed, but soon found that her face was being pulled by an unseen force into a smile. She tried to resist it, but found her voice silenced before her face froze.
Her clothes, Asuna noticed, had shrunk with her thankfully. But at the change in what her kidnapper was chanting, they began to shift, stretch and change. Her jacket started to turn a red colour as it fused with the shirt she'd been wearing underneath, and her skirt. She started to recognise her new outfit as a dress as it finished forming. It was conservative in its cut, stretching down to her ankles, but it went overboard on its ostentation, with lacy white trim against red finery delicately embroidered with intricate patterns. The dress billowed outward around her body, supported by a tiny corset and bustle, harkening back to Europe's old Victorian style, and was further decorated by several satin ribbons. Her shoes were plain by comparison, black and with only slightly raised heels, yet they were made of authentic leather. Only a hint of her stockings could be seen between the hem of her dress and her shoes, yet they were no less detailed for being out of sight.
From what Asuna could see of the new outfit, she thought it looked ridiculous. She brought her hands up to her face to attempt to make sense of what had happened to her. She couldn't move her face anymore and soon, the pieces began to fall into place in her mind. "A doll?!" She thought.
But Asuna had no time to contemplate on the fact that her kidnapper had turned her into a living doll, she had to get out of this place. Sluggishly, Asuna tried to get to her feet but her movements felt... off. She managed to get to her feet, and walk a small distance but her balance was definitely off. She soon tripped, but ended up falling into the hand of her captor.
As the man lifted her up, he pinned Asuna's arms to her sides. "You turned out very well." He commented, taking her over to a nearby table. He moved her hair out of the way, and opened up her dress with the zipper in the back. Asuna struggled, but found a new, strange feeling on her neck as he drew an arcane symbol on the base of her neck before she felt any control over her own body slip away. He placed her down on the table, in front of a small mirror after zipping the dress back up. He also accessorized her outfit with a big (obviously a relative term) matching bow tying her braids together in the back, and placed a fancy umbrella placed in her hands and resting upon her shoulders. He then crowned her with a tiara, making her seem like a princess. The only accessory that brought her any comfort was her necklace, shaped as a cross, the symbol her guild, the Knights of the Blood Oath had used back in Sword Art Online.
Looking into the mirror, Asuna could see the forced smile plastered on her face, and the blush spots painted on her cheeks. Despite all the changes, her hair still seemed like it was real. She wasn't happy with this at all! She wanted to be with Kazuto, not this… freak.
Her captor's tastes seemed to be a strange combination of the old and the new. While she was wearing a fancy dress, and there were a handful of dolls nearby her with similarly styled but less elaborate attire, others wore outfits like bikinis or the costumes of anime characters. She could also look out into his room through the glass of the case that he kept her in, and saw that it was also decorated by several wall scrolls, like a typical otaku's room.
But given the terrible power that he had, she wouldn't have been surprised if a number of the figures and dolls in the room, and perhaps even some of the posters and wall scrolls, had once been real girls like her. No, she was certain of it. But try as she might, she couldn't talk to any of them, and it seemed that none of them could speak to her. Neither did they have a means of nonverbal communication, for none of them could make any expressions other than the ones they had been given, and notions of using some sort of telepathy were pure fantasy.
He said that she was the pride of his collection. He had admired her for so long from afar, even back in the days when they were both trapped in Sword Art Online. But she would never be his, not as a girl anyway, and so he had settled for having her as a doll. Besides, it was good to have her brought down a peg from when she was the Vice-Commander of the Knights of the Blood Oath and to know that she couldn't ever leave him. And wasn't she so pretty now?
It was all thanks to a strange book on the occult that he had found after getting out of SAO. Yes, some of his other collectibles had been once real girls who had caught his eye and also spurned his advances, and he even introduced Asuna to them. Yet though they had come before her, they had been but tests so that he could perfect the spells for her, and now they were afterthoughts next to the attention he lavished on Asuna. His captives, including Asuna, were well-hidden in plain sight among hundreds figures and numerous scrolls that covered every inch of available wall space.
It made her feel sick. But she could only wait and have faith that Kazuto would find and save her one day, as he always had.
The days passed by in a blur, an endless tedium broken only when her owner opened the display case to adjust her pose or change her clothes, sometimes snapping pictures of her for scrapbooking or future reference, or more horrifyingly, when he added new girls to his collection. She wanted to cry out and help them, but she was incapable of doing so from her perch behind glass and with her doll's body. Just like her, they would become seemingly lifeless dolls or figures with bright smiles on their faces, or else they'd be made to assume really embarrassing poses before being converted into dye upon cloth, usually with some sort of background added in. Yet they were mere amusements to him, and she remained his clear favorite. Thankfully, the frequency of his "acquisitions" also seemed to drop off with time.
Asuna could see a calendar on the wall across from her. First it was a month, then six, then a year, then two years. At that point, he smugly told her that the authorities had stopped looking for her and that Kirito clearly didn't care enough about her to find her. But she wouldn't have to worry: he'd always take care of her.
Soon, Asuna wasn't sure how long she had been there. The calendar said it was 2032, but she couldn't remember when she had first joined the collection. She was still in mint condition, free of dust and with not even a scratch on her paint job, thanks to her owner's diligent care. It was a simple existence that demanded nothing from her, unlike the stress of running a guild or cramming for exams, yet a fulfilling one that filled her with the knowledge that she was appreciated, and she had come to love wearing her dress. Its every stitch was testament to how much her owner loved her, and she took pride in the fact that she remained his favorite doll.
Though they only arrived rarely now, the new dolls seemed frightened before assuming their forms for display, but their smiles afterward assured Asuna that they would eventually come to find happiness as she had. She wished that she could talk to them though and tell them that everything would be all right. She could really use a good conversation too, but she never got one, and thus any words from her owner, especially those about the state of the outside world, were precious. But most of the time he just told her how beautiful she was and how lucky he was to own her, and that was no less gratifying even with its repetition.
Yet something nagged at the back of her mind. There was something, no someone important that she had forgotten. He was a black-haired swordsman who she had met in her past life. What was his name? Kaz… Kiri…? It was muddled in her mind, yet the brief time she had spent with him was something that she would always treasure. She wished that she could see the swordsman at least one more time, so that her memories of their time together could come rushing back to her. Perhaps she even go off on another adventure with him… even if that adventure was simply to join his collection instead. In spite of how well she was treated here, she knew that the black-haired swordsman was her rightful owner, and that her glass case was like a gilded cage. That seemed vaguely familiar as well, a cage somewhere among the trees and the sky… And he had come for her then, hadn't he? So a part of her stubbornly held onto her faith, and would do so no matter how long it took her first and truest love.
And then one day her owner did something outside of his usual routine, taking her down from her shelf. He didn't seem to have a new outfit that he wanted her to wear, for he kept her in the red dress, and Asuna felt anxiety creeping over her. What was going on?
"It's your big day, Asuna," he said with a smile. "Today I finally get to show you off, along with the other highlights of my collection."
He seemed to have a case prepared for her, with foam cut to her shape inside, and set her down so that it acted as a cushion around her. Asuna felt a little reassured by his gentle words, and the foam ensured that she wouldn't break in transit, but she couldn't entirely shake the feeling of uncertainty. Was he showing her off so that he could sell her to another collector? He wouldn't do that! Would he?
But then the case closed, and Asuna was left in complete darkness.
Asuna felt herself panicking a bit. The foam was snug enough around her and not at all uncomfortable, and she knew that she couldn't suffocate in the case; she didn't breathe in the first place as a doll. Yet claustrophobia had quickly set in all the same. Maybe it was because dolls existed to be where people could see them, either playing with them or appreciating them on display. Thus, being hidden away like this was a terror to her.
She felt the case being picked up, and soon she was on her way… to wherever her owner was taking her.
For Kirigaya Kazuto, the last five years had been a nightmare.
Yuuki Asuna, his girlfriend and wife within the virtual world, who had been his partner since the death game of Sword Art Online, had vanished without a trace in 2027. They had both been in college and had been talking of moving in together and getting officially married to each other in the real world soon. But someone had abducted her while she was on her way to the campus one morning, and the realization of this had been like a knife through Kazuto's heart. No ransom demands were made, and he grew even more worried. Asuna was incredibly beautiful, and unfortunately Japan had plenty of perverts. Had they kidnapped Asuna just so they could rape her, just as the despicable and now disgraced Nobuyuki Sugou had once attempted in the virtual world?
Since he was one of the closest people to her, he had naturally been questioned about her disappearance, but no further action was taken because there was no evidence to link him to any crime. Asuna's mother still seemed to blame him somehow, even if she knew that he hadn't actually been responsible. Yuuki Kyouko had never been particularly fond of him, looking down upon him as being "beneath" her daughter in spite of the everlasting bond that they had forged together. She would have much preferred that her daughter marry some well-off businessman or a young heir. It was the sort of thinking that had once led to Asuna being betrothed to Sugou, though Kyouko still contended that the match had been her husband Shouzou's idea and that she hadn't liked Sugou. He had a feeling the two of them would never be able to see eye-to-eye.
Two years after Asuna's disappearance, she had been declared legally dead. But Kazuto refused to believe it. Asuna was strong, and she would survive. And he would find her one day.
Indeed, finding Asuna became his obsession to the detriment of all else. He didn't sleep well anymore, and he would run himself ragged poring over any leads he could find. His hair became wild from a lack of care, and his grades slipped, though he had enough natural brilliance with computers that he was still able to find enough part-time work to support himself while he worked on upgrading the capabilities of his A.I. daughter, Yui, who used her ability to sift through information at speeds impossible for a human to help him in his search for Asuna. Suguha and the others were really worried about him, yet thankfully they had the decency not to make advances on him once they realized he would never be over Asuna.
Then one day in 2032, Kazuto heard the words he had long dreamed of.
"Daddy! I've found Mommy!" Yui shouted, waving him over to the computer terminal she was connected to. His daughter still didn't have a body of her own, but she could navigate a simulated facsimile of the room based on camera feeds, and he now wore one of the first Neuro Linker models around his neck, projecting her image into his mind as if she were really there. Invented within just the last year, it operated on similar principles to the NERV Gear and AmuSphere but it had considerably greater processing power and utilized a low-power quantum connection with the user's brain. Unlike the devices that had preceded it, which were strictly for gaming, one could be fully awake while using a Neuro Linker, which allowed it to provide for Augmented Reality. Not only did this let him experience Yui in his room, but it also functioned as a personal computer in which applications could be opened, closed, and used through thought, though it retained full dive capabilities. It was a miraculous piece of technology, and he suspected that someone may have stolen some of his ideas to make it, but he couldn't bring himself to care with Asuna missing.
Kazuto ran over to his daughter and her computer screen. She still had the same child-like appearance as always, though recently she had begun to consider gradually updating her appearance so that she could "grow up" like any other couple's daughter.
"Where is she?" Kazuto asked anxiously.
"Here, at the convention center," Yui replied, effortlessly bringing up a picture through her connection to the terminal.
"Huh?" Kazuto didn't see Asuna. He saw someone's collection of dolls standing on a table. "Yui, I think you've made some sort of mistake."
"No, I'm certain of it, Daddy. Look closer." She magnified the image, zooming in on one of the dolls, one wearing a fancy red dress, a tiara and a white ribbon in its hair, and holding an tiny umbrella again its shoulder. "Her face is the same as Mommy's, within a certainty of 95%." Yui brought up several more pictures from different angles. "Adding these to my analysis drives my certainty up to nearly 99.7%. Her hair color is identical, and the style is similar - notice the braids on the sides of her head. And this doll's name is even Asuna."
Kazuto felt his mind spinning. Was this just like the start of his journey into ALO, a picture leading him to Asuna? But how could that really be Asuna? It had to just be a doll based on her appearance. But it was the best lead they had found in a while, and in his gut he knew it couldn't be a coincidence. Someone couldn't have made such a doll without having plenty of references to Asuna's appearance on hand… or maybe, just maybe Asuna captive herself.
"When and were were these pictures taken?"
"Just a few minutes ago, in a convention center here in Tokyo, Daddy. I'll search for the address for you." Bringing up a search engine on her terminal, it only took moments for Yui to find the information.
"Thanks, Yui. I'll check it out right away. I owe Asuna that much if there's any chance that this could help me find her again."
"Bring Mommy back soon, Daddy!"
The convention center was packed with people. It had been a long time since Kazuto had been around so many people, in the real or virtual worlds, and he keenly felt his old awkwardness once again. Otaku of all stripes were showing off their collections, and while he would have liked to check out the more technological exhibits, he was on a mission to find a very particular doll collection.
And finally, he did.
Asuna found it exhilarating to have so many people around admiring her, or even just going about their business, talking about various things. The simple pleasure of being around people other than her owner was one she had been long starved of. Yet the crowds also encouraged her rebellious thoughts. Perhaps the black-haired swordsman, her true owner, would be among them and would come to see her.
And then, she saw him! He had come for her after all! Even after five years, he was instantly recognizable to her, even if his hair was messier than she remembered it. Seeing him also jogged her memory somewhat. His name was Kirito!
She was desperate to reach out to him, despite the fact that she had never been able to communicate with anyone since becoming a doll. "Kirito-sama! It's me, Asuna! I'm down here!" Maybe it was her sheer determination, or maybe it was her ability to easily empathize with Kirito given how well she knew him, but this time she actually got a response. His head turned so that he was looking right at her, his eyes widened, and she heard another voice in her own mind.
Kazuto clearly heard Asuna's voice, and, through his Neuro Linker, Yui heard it too ("Mommy!"). But when he turned toward the source of the voice, all he saw was the doll that Yui had pointed out to him. But how could it have spoken? Was it really Asuna after all? Was this some kind of telepathy? What was going on?
"Yes, Kirito-sama, it's me, Asuna. It's been so long since I've seen you, but I knew that you'd come for me one day."
"Wait… Kirito-sama? When did you start calling me that? And how can you be a doll? Please tell me that I'm not going crazy."
Kazuto sensed an edge as sharp as steel pressing against his mind. "That's mean, Kirito-sama. You're my only true owner, so of course you deserve that honorific. Though I suppose it's a long story as to how I got like this… To make it short, magic. Is that so hard to believe? We're already talking telepathically. I can't speak on my own as a doll, so even this conversation with you is a miracle. It's been years since I've been able to talk to anyone!"
Kazuto supposed that made sense, and he was glad that some of Asuna's fierce personality remained, although the years of isolation had clearly gotten to her, muddling her memories and making her view herself as his doll rather than his wife. Well, hopefully with time the independent Asuna who was his equal would return. But first he had to figure out how he could help her get back to normal.
"Okay, Asuna. I believe you, and I promise you'll be back to your old self soon. What do I need to - "
"Can I help you?" the man displaying the doll collection asked, breaking Kazuto's concentration.
"Oh - I was… just admiring your collection," Kazuto fumbled, while trying to see if he could somehow keep talking to Asuna. He could still hear her voice in his mind, but he was having trouble reaching out to her now. After all, it was nearly impossible to hold two coherent conversations at the same time.
"Ah, yes." He beckoned down to Asuna. "This doll is the pride of my collection. Doubtlessly she's the one that caught your eye."
"He's the one who stole me from you," Asuna continued, a venom that she had almost forgotten entering her tone.
"Does the doll have a name?" Kazuto asked, trying to sound natural.
"Of course. This one is named Asuna." He paused. "Do I know you from somewhere?"
"Be careful, Daddy!" Yui chimed in through the Neuro Linker. "He's getting suspicious! Could he be another SAO survivor?"
"He is," Asuna confirmed.
"I know, Yui, and thank you, Asuna" Kazuto thought back. Returning his attention to Asuna's captor, he truthfully replied, "I can't say that I recall your face." Trying to change the topic, he continued, "Would you be willing to sell Asuna?" It would surely be expensive, but if he could get Asuna away from him without any confrontation that would be all the better, especially in such a crowed convention center.
"Sorry, but she's not for sale. Asuna means too much to me. Now maybe one of the others..."
"Find out where he lives, and come for me." Asuna whispered into his mind. "All you have to do is steal me back, Kirito-sama. You've done that before, haven't you?"
"I'll think about that then. How may I contact you?"
The collector handed him his card, complete with an e-mail address.
Bingo! Kazuto could see that Asuna's captor was wearing a Neuro Linker as well, so all he would have to do is send an e-mail inquiring about the rest of the collection and attach a computer virus to it. Once his foe's Neuro Linker was compromised, he could learn everything that he needed to know to rescue Asuna and he'd be able to confuse her captor's senses as well.
"Thank you," Kazuto replied, before turning to leave. It would do him no good to further rouse suspicion here. "I'll be back for you soon, Asuna."
"All too easy." People just didn't learn, did they, even when the Neuro Linker had made it more important than ever to be vigilant in the security of one's computer, as it interfaced directly with one's brain. If you were a good enough hacker, you could even read the target's memories via the neurolinker. Finding a particular memory wasn't easy, since they weren't organized quite like files were, and there would necessarily be a bit of fuzziness in the recall, but Kazuto had extensively studied the brain as part of his interest in VR technology, so he was sure that he could do it.
So what exactly was he up against? To answer that question, he needed to know exactly how the man had abducted and transformed Asuna. He figured that the best way to accomplish this would be to induce the stimulus of Asuna's appearance before her transformation, so that her captor would naturally recall the relevant memories.
And then he had them, the mental images triggered in the man's mind, which were relayed to Kazuto's own Neuro Linker, allowing him to experience them as if they were firsthand.
There were flashes of Asuna within Aincrad, of the man lecherously watching her from afar. Of the man discovering his powers and testing them on other girls, just as practice for Asuna. A flash of how he approached Asuna one day as she was on her way to her first class of the day and hypnotized her into following him. And he saw the man cast his fateful spells upon her, shrinking her, changing her clothes and then drawing a mark that robbed her of mobility. From there, he left her on display on his shelf, where she had stayed for the last five years.
Kazuto could barely contain his rage, but he had to remain focused on what he was seeing so that he could formulate a plan.
And then Kazuto saw another memory, one that was far more recent. The man seemed to have decided that Asuna needed some friends to accompany her on his shelf, and he didn't mean just any friends like the other girls he had transformed over the years. He had his eyes on Asuna's friends - Rika and Shino. Sure, they now were "older" than Asuna, but they were both beautiful in their own right, and the man thought that it would be fun to dress them up in frilly outfits too, especially Shino.
Now Kazuto's rage boiled over. What the man had done to Asuna was already unforgivable, and now the villain planned to kidnap his friends too? And what sort of sick joke was it that it always seemed like there was some sort of stalker after them?
If the man's thoughts were any indication, Shino was his preferred target. He'd approach her like he had Asuna, hypnotize her, and then lead her back to his apartment, where he'd transform her into his newest doll. But as tempting as it was just to break into the man's apartment, immediately retrieve Asuna, and ambush him when he arrived with his would-be victim, Kazuto knew he couldn't do that. Firstly, he couldn't let any of his friends be subjected to the man's control in good conscience if it was within his power to prevent it. Secondly, it would be all too easy for the man to transform him there if the advantage of surprise was lost, and while that could reunite him with Asuna, it certainly an outcome to be avoided. Lastly, there was the issue of what would happen to the man in the aftermath. If he was allowed to go free, he would just keep transforming more young women… it wasn't as if the courts recognized "involuntary transformation" as a crime. And if Kazuto broke into his apartment or killed him, Kazuto would find himself locked up for his own crimes and wouldn't be able to be with Asuna again.
So the solution was to catch the man in the act of trying to kidnap Shino - that was recognized as a real crime after all. Once that was accomplished, retrieving Asuna from the man's apartment would be simple.
Given how recent the memory was, he had to assume that the man would be going after Shino very soon. As he hurried to where he could expect to find Shino, he could only hope that he wasn't too late to save her.
"All too easy," the man thought. Asada Shino stood before him, a distant look in her eyes, under his thrall, at least for now. For an officer in training, she wasn't that tough. The mind could be such a fragile thing, even if one gained a measure of inner strength over the years. Sure, she had put up some mental resistance, but it was just a matter of finding the flaws in her resolve, punching holes in them, and then filling them in with pleasant visions that would pacify her. She would see him as someone she trusted now, so that if he were to politely ask her to follow him, she would not object. And then she would be his as a cute doll, right next to Asuna with a nice smile on her face.
It had also been too easy to approach Shino as she left from work. It was relatively late, and while the city was always busy, it was less so at this hour. To any onlooker, he was probably just an acquaintance of hers who had paused to talk, and then they would leave together. Surely, there could be nothing suspicious about that. Even when Shino was found to be missing, the chances of witnesses testimony leading back to him was slim at best. Besides, he liked to change his attire regularly, and also varied his hairstyle or wore wigs while acquiring his new dolls, so even if people did report seeing someone talking to young women before their disappearances, the police wouldn't have a consistent description for the subject.
Of course, if someone was to get too nosy, they'd notice Shino's stupor, and that would be suspicious. But people were always in a hurry, so few would pause for a closer look.
Yet… someone was getting closer right now, hurrying toward him with undeniable purpose. How had he messed up? Was it an acquaintance of Shino's, come to meet with her unbeknownst to him, who was alarmed at seeing her with a stranger? No… this wasn't a coincidence. The would-be meddler was familiar to him. He had seen the black-haired man at the convention, where he had showed off Asuna like she was any other doll proudly in his collection. And then it clicked. The man was Kirito, Asuna's boyfriend! Kirito would have recognized her anywhere. How had he been so careless not to realize the black-haired man's identity before? And Kirito was Shino's friend as well. He didn't know how Kirito had pieced together that Shino was his next target, but that wasn't important right now… stopping Kirito was.
Other eyes were already being drawn to Kirito's motion, and then he shouted "Shino!". Now Kirito had really made a scene, and Shino blinked next to him, a sign that his hold over her was wavering. He'd certainly lose control over her if he had to hypnotize the whole crowd. Could he even manage to do it for so many people at once? Even if he could, the strength of his suggestions would certainly be diffused among them. That was not a viable strategy, especially when Kirito was nearly upon him.
No, he'd have to flee with Shino while he could still control her, and then he could fight back against Kirito when there were fewer people around. Once it was just the two of them, he could turn Kirito into a doll as well… and then smash him into pieces. He wasn't interested in collecting male dolls, and he was feeling rather vindictive after Kirito had ruined what should have been an easy acquisition. And so he grabbed Shino by the arm, and began forcibly dragging her along with him.
But then, a shadow loomed over him from behind. Turning around, he saw a giant, black-haired girl, who seemed to be getting bigger by the moment. Or was he shrinking? It was utterly absurd, but he found himself rooted to the spot.
"You're going to pay for what you did to Mommy," the black-haired girl said as she reached down toward him with a now-massive hand.
He was powerless to resist. Was this how his dolls felt after he transformed them? All he could do was scream.
He didn't even notice that Shino had woken fully from her trance, and he only felt himself getting bludgeoned in the back of the head by her bag before losing consciousness.
It wasn't long before the raving lunatic and would-be kidnapper was taken away by the police. Shino, of course, had to make a statement, stating that the man had indeed tried to kidnap her, but Kazuto had apparently slipped away in the aftermath of the incident. Wasn't he going to tell her what was going on? It was infuriating!
Finally, she was free to go, and soon thereafter she received a call from Kazuto, asking to meet with her. It was about time!
Kazuto was there to greet her when she arrived at his residence. There was a look of relief on his face that she hadn't seen in years.
"Please, come in."
She nodded, and stepped inside.
"I believe I owe you an explanation, Shino."
"You've got that right."
"Firstly, this all has to do with Asuna."
There it was again. Kazuto had never been able to get beyond the grim truth that Asuna had been kidnapped and likely murdered. But seeing that he had saved her tonight, and for old times' sake, she felt compelled to listen to him.
"The man who tried to kidnap you tonight was the same man who kidnapped Asuna five years ago."
"How do you know that?"
"It's a long story… you'd think I was crazy if I didn't have proof with me. But I do." With that, he picked up an exquisite porcelain doll with strawberry-blonde hair and a gorgeous red dress and a tiara, making it look like a princess, and reverentially set it down in front of her.
"Um… I'm sorry, Kazuto, but I don't follow."
"Look more carefully at her."
This was getting really weird, but Shino played along. Adjusting her glasses (although she didn't really need to, since the lenses were non-corrective), she squinted and bent forward to get a good look at the doll's face.
Wait! That was Asuna's face! And the braided hair… Kazuto couldn't mean?
"Hello, Sinonon. It's been a while, hasn't it?" Asuna's voice said directly into her mind, using the affectionate nickname that she had once used for Shino.
Shino almost fell out of her chair, and narrowly avoided knocking the doll over in her surprise.
"Be careful, Sinonon! You wouldn't want to break me on my first night among friends in five years! Unfortunately, I'm very fragile right now."
The doll was talking to her. The doll was Asuna!
"I'm dreaming," Shino told herself. She gave herself a hard pinch. It hurt. "But I'm not. How can this be?"
"I'd be lying if I told you that I fully understood it myself," Kazuto replied. "But it seems that some sort of magic really exists in our world. And that man used it to turn Asuna into a doll. He was planning to do the same to you next, adding you to his collection and putting you onto a shelf next to her."
"Though I would have enjoyed your company, it's good Kirito-sama was able to get to you when he did. And then, he came back for me, so I got to see you again anyway. But I can't help but think of how cute you would have looked, Sinonon. You'll have to dress up for me one day."
"What?!" Shino felt her face burning red.
"Was it something I said?" Asuna asked innocently.
"Of course there is! Me, dressing up as a doll? And why are you calling him Kirito-sama? You were close, but you never had that kind of relationship!"
"You'll have to forgive Asuna," Kazuto replied. "The ordeal took a toll on her, and it may be a while before she's back to her old personality. But the more she can interact with her old friends, the faster I think her recovery will be."
"I see… well, I suppose I can do that." But no sooner had her embarrassment passed, another thought occurred to her. "Kazuto, why weren't you at the station when they brought that stalker in? Of course, the police wouldn't have believed the story about Asuna being a doll, but you still should have been there to give testimony."
"I was retrieving Asuna."
"Are you saying that you used me as BAIT so that you could break into his apartment while he was detained?"
"He was going after you anyway, it was the best way too…."
"Sinonon, how could you? Even if Kirito-sama did have an ulterior motive, if he hadn't come for you when he did, you would have been captured too."
"Hmph. Fine. But don't think I'll forget this soon."
"Oh, before I forget, Asuna, there's something I should take care of," Kazuto added, carefully lifting her up again, and lifting her hair to reveal a mark on the back of her neck. Rubbing out the mark, he set her down again. "Do you feel any better now?"
Asuna felt a strange sensation throughout her porcelain body. She still didn't have any muscles or blood flowing through her veins (or veins at all for that matter), but it was animated nonetheless. Experimentally, she flexed an arm, and then took a few dainty steps off her stand. High above her, Sinonon was freaking out, but Kirito-sama's smile was beaming down on her.
How odd it felt to be able to move on her own again… she had almost forgotten that she had enjoyed this sort of freedom once, how she had once been the Flash, gracefully dashing across the battlefield. Well, that had been in world other than this one, in another life, with a virtual body, but she remembered it all the same. Of course, she wouldn't be setting any speed records with her current porcelain body, lest she risk tripping and smashing herself. If that happened, she had no idea if Kirito-sama would ever be able to put her back together again, let alone restore her to how she had once been… a human being. Her range of motion was also far more limited than when she had been human, as she could only move at her joints. Consequently, she was stuck with the same smiling expression that she had worn for five years, only now, she sincerely felt that way. For all of the shortcomings of her situation, it was enough for now.
Carefully mounting her stand once again, she let herself become still, though the animating energy continued to flow through her.
"I think I'll rest here for now," she said telepathically to the one whom she truly belonged to in heart, porcelain body, and soul. "I don't mind if you keep me on your shelf until you figure out how to restore me to my old self. You can do that, right?"
"It will take some time… I'm going to have to study that book that creep had in his room... it's where he learned his magic. But I promise you Asuna, I will, no matter how long it takes."
"I waited five years… I can wait a few more, and I don't mind if it's for you. In the meantime, we'll have to invite Liz and all of the others over, and have a party. I can't wait to see the looks on their faces."
"What about your parents?"
She would have frowned if she could. "It's… probably best if they don't see me like this. They wouldn't understand. But once I'm restored… we'll see them then."
"I agree. Well, I'll make things as comfortable for you here as I can in the meantime… and get a lot of cushions for the room."
"And I," Sinonon added, having finally composed herself, "will pretend I heard none of this, especially that part about breaking and entering. But no matter what you've forgotten Asuna, never forget how lucky you are to have him, even as a doll." Was there jealousy in her voice?
And so began the next phase of Asuna's life. She had no idea how long it would be before she would be human again, but she looked toward that future with hope, secure in the knowledge that she was no longer a captive behind glass.