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Exit Frou the Gift Shop

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This had been a ridiculous idea since the moment he’d bothered to leave the factory.

Eleven o’clock - the sun was bright for the mid-morning hustle and bustle of Cheesebridge, the roads deemed “safe” for the commute of bustling ladies and busied businessmen. Perhaps if he’d kept the curfew in effect for a little while longer, he wouldn’t have to be subjected to this public torment. Too late for that now.

No, he’d have to deal with it. Across the busied street, lounging in open-doored parlors and the shady banks of glittering store windows, women of all shapes and sizes - all far more flattering than his own - gave the market street a high-pitched hum, a sort of shrill buzz that had been deemed detrimental to the male ear. Three young ladies cornered a particularly wide window directly across the uneven road, giggling nervously and light over whatever fripperies were displayed behind the polish. He could not help but stare at their sloping waists, the ways their flat stomachs plateaued into the wide crinoline-supported planes of their skirts.

No corset could make the paunch he was all too acutely aware of that flat; were bustles even made to fit the considerable span of his waist? A thick, chalky feeling grew in the deep of his gullet - oh, and his jowls. Women simply didn’t have jowls. A ridiculous idea, a stupid, silly, ridiculous --

“Archibald.”

He turned, meeting Mavis Livarot’s scrutinizing gaze abruptly.

“I’ve said 'we’re here' twice now - I was beginning to think I’d lost you.”

She turned her head away with the characteristic jingling of her earrings. Mavis Livarot was a dark-haired woman, barely over five and twenty - she had small sloping shoulders and a proud, sharp jawline that made her more handsome than pretty. She was certainly not the kind of woman that should ever hang so daintily off of Archibald P. Snatcher’s arm, but she pulled him dutifully along anyhow, a friend of a friend stooge and a woman he liked to think he trusted.

Trusted enough, anyhow, to take her quite seriously when she offered to bring him dress shopping.

With another jingle, she tugged at his arm, squinting in the sunlight. He must have been frowning, because when her eyes met his, she smiled a perfectly cheery little smile and said,

“Oh, don’t worry - this’ll be fun!”

He wanted to die. Mavis pulled him along, past the glittering windows that read LA CABOUTIQUE, MADAME’S FRIPPERIES AND FOBS in golden calligraphy above their gaudy awnings. Snatcher chanced one final glance across the street. The young ladies were gone.

 

A small, silver bell tinkled its airy song as he opened the door for her. The stink of perfume and varnish met his nose as he entered, the cool shade a relief for his tired eyes. Mavis’ bustling skirts swathed the polished floor, so egregiously burnished that Snatcher swore he could see the pricklings of the five o’clock shadow he’d shaved away that morning. The walls that were interrupted at every foot with a wide, white-rimmed window were a soft, powdery blue, peeled back at the moulding and brushed by the soft white curtains that were curled thoughtfully into golden claw hooks.

As Mavis peered amongst the bustles and trains, muttering to herself, Snatcher marvelled silently at the sheer amount of dress that hoarded the space. Lighted on pedestals and small stages, bright vermillions and pinks and soft oranges and creams and greens and deep blues and magentas and eggshell whites and lavenders burned at his retinas, every other vibrant color glittering in the sunlight that filtered in through the curtains. Feathers and sashes and trains pooled thoughtfully over the floor, arranged in spools and soft curls that made their accompanying gowns look impossible to wear.

In the back, tall mirrors stretched from the ceiling to the ground, swallowing the garish gowns up and thrusting them right back at his eyes. He stared at himself staring, watching Mavis scuttle about before him, noting the stark differences in their builds, the way she - if she stopped moving - looked so similar to the wire dress forms, how ill-fitting he was in this atmosphere, all red and dull against the brilliant colors.

A low, sorry groan gurgled in the back of his throat, thankful that, at that moment, a small, brightly-varnished flagship sailed in front of his face in the mirror --

Wait.

Snatcher watched as the mahogany craft floated coolly above the dark blues and emerald greens that surrounded it, watched as it turned back and forth almost frantically, before peering out from a particularly bright red bustle, stuck in a thousand white curls, which were stuck to an equally-white face. The face stared at him, and he stared back, before Mavis cut in front of him somewhere, and the face lit up, and --

MAVEY DEEEEAAA~AAAR!!”

“Cabbie, darling!” Mavis cried as she threw up her arms, and Snatcher watched as the white face produced a wide body from behind the skirt, and that wide body and white face came bustling toward them both at high-speed. Archibald had to swallow down a groan, watching as the madame rushed to grab Mavis by the elbows, kissing her cheeks and leaving flushed little puckers on each cheekbone.

“Ohhh, it’s so good to see you, dear!” 'Cabbie' cheered. Snatcher watched her fake beauty mark bounce on the flab of her cheek. Her gaze fell on him as she shook with giddiness, and he recognized the initial confusion and halt there all too well.

“We’re here to buy a few dresses,” Mavis began, bringing the attention back to her smiling face thoughtfully, “for my dear sister, Penelope.” Snatcher snorted, feeling the light tap of Mavis’ elbow in his gut as the both of them watched Cabecou’s confusion explode into utter delight.

“Ohhh, how lovely!” she squealed, clapping her small hands together as her eyes flittered between both of their faces. Snatcher took a moment to level her with an uninterested sneer; the powder-blue dress she wore matched the walls of the boutique, lifted up to an enth degree by the ridiculous bustle that thrust her figure out into the parlor. The underskirt she wore was ruffled and a dark sea green; the boat sitting in her tall white wig was the piece-de-resistance. Ridiculous.

“Where is she?” The Madame asked tentatively, her eyes lingering on Snatcher’s face for a second longer than he would have liked. He glanced down to Mavis, who simply grinned, all confidence and pre-planned knowledge.

“Oh, we couldn’t possibly bring her! They’re going to be presents, you know. But,” Mavis flipped her pale little palm open, level with his paunch, and when he met Cabecou’s gaze, she looked confused out of her powdered mind.

“Mr. Snatcher here has her body type exactly, and he doesn’t mind modeling one bit!”

He couldn’t tell if she was more surprised at Mavis having a sister of his “exact build”, or at the fact that a man of his exact build was going to be the model.

After a moment of silence that felt like an eon, Cabecou (still staring boggle-eyed at Snatcher, who stared right back) clapped her tiny hands and barked, “Okay!” a little too loud. “I’ll go get some - some things ready! You can both -- ehm -- look about, while we get ready!” She gave him one final once-over, marked with a small sneer of her lips, before she bustled off into the sea of vermilion and gold.

Archibald deflated with a loud and hoarse sigh. “I cannot do this.”

“Oh, shush,” Mavis cooed, giving a soft tap of her fingers against his elbow, “you’ll be wonderful! I’m so excited!” Her voice, shushed by her whisper, grated on his nerves, and though his thin smile was mockingly grateful, it did nothing to quell the overbearing weight of his girth.

 

Cabecou appeared from a long swath of curtains some seconds later, two foppish and straight-backed young men at her sides. With their matching wigs and upturned noses, Snatcher was reminded off-hand of the White Hats; he chuckled horribly, and they exchanged a panicked glance. They carried together a sort of three-paneled pedestal, hugged by three tall mirrors that circled the small stage like esteem-hungry predators. The moment she saw it assembled, Mavis let out a squeak of delight and dragged him toward it, pushing him onto the stage with all the strength her tiny body could manage and sweeping down to the chair they’d set out for her. Cabecou’s assistants took his hat and jacket with some hesitance and hung them with two fingers each on a nearby rack, and Snatcher stood there, fussing with his shirtcuffs and his greasy hair, feeling utterly naked.

A sharp snap brought him out of his awkwardice. Cabecou ascended the small platform with a flourish of her wrist, a bright yellow measuring tape flicking out into the stale air with another snap! Dread hung on him like a heavy plague, barely hearing what requests she voiced; hold out your arm, relax your stomach. The black little numbers climbed on and on with every slip of her fingers, and he watched her brightly-colored nail dig into every digit; 34, 26, 15.

He didn’t even bother looking when she measured his girth. Instead, he glanced to Mavis, perched on the corner of her chair and tittering on in perfect drivel. She smiled as she spoke, blissfully unaware of his inner turmoil - or, perhaps, acutely aware of it, and she smiled only to make him feel better. The thought soothed him somewhat, knowing that she would have supported him either way, but when he heard the small noise of strain Cabecou made to reach the tape about his belly, Archibald felt the low blow to his self-worth like the impact of a train.

“Alright!”

The loud clap of the Madame’s hands brought him to the present. She spoke between both his face and Mavis’, mentioning that she was sure they had a handful of dresses that would fit him, and that she hoped he was a good enough replacement for “dear Penelope”. As she turned, panic blossomed in his chest; weren’t there corsets and bustles involved? Not that he had been researching ladies’ wear, or anything, but --

Mavis seemed to read his mind, calling out to Cabecou’s shrinking form in her best falsetto; “Do include the corsets and bustles, please! My sister’s quite fond of them!”

Cabbie made a noise that sounded like a mix of a sneeze and a scoff, and when she whirled incredulously on the young lady, Mavis gave him a glance and a complacent smile.

“I mean -- if Mr. Snatcher doesn’t mind…?”

His eyes narrowed, her grin widening as Cabecou and her assistants bore holes into the side of his face, and with his gruffest voice, he managed to say; “Not terribly.”

The madame hurried dutifully off, not sparing Snatcher her final confused once-over before disappearing behind a row of dresses. The Red Hat slumped with defeat, understanding very clearly that he was throttling down the road to ruin - in the most glittery, over-encumbered dresses he would ever see.

Oh, he was a confident man - when he needed to be. “An amorphous slug,” one lord had said, thinking he’d been quiet under the weight of cheese in his mouth. Cold, dismal, ever-changing to fit the present situation; it could have been said in a nicer way, but he liked to think the imagery fit. Hadn’t he gone this far, anyhow? So willing to thrust himself into a White Hat far too small for his head that he’d wear a wig and makeup to get it; he even wanted a proper corset! But this… in a boutique, of all places...

“You look great,” Mavis had said rather quietly as she fit him into one of her grandmother’s (or aunt’s, or someone of some relation) one drab and boring night some few weeks ago. A nice suggestion he’d scoffed at, but as she’d been tying the laces and maneuvering it into place, he’d found himself agreeing with her. It had just been over his shirt, nothing so close to what he’d truly be wearing; but it had looked… nice. Pretty, even, though that wasn’t a word anyone on either side of Cheesebridge would ever apply to Archibald Snatcher.

Yes. Archibald Snatcher had straightened his back and given a little hum of approval, because he’d thought he had looked pretty.

It was nothing he’d admit, of course (Mavis had given a knowing smile for a brief moment, just as she laced the last ribbon), but he rather liked feeling that way - especially about himself. It was all good and well to mock the feelings of pride and egotism, but to feel comfortable, and even a little good, about the way he looked… well, he could only imagine how a full dress would make him feel.

The clacking of heeled feet ripped him from his self-reflection, only to be accosted by a bright, powdered wig.

“Monsieur?” one of Cabecou’s assistants drawled, hesitant with his words. “The madame has prepared a fitting room pour vous.”

Their mutual silence confirmed that it was, most definitely, the weirdest sentence either man had ever heard in his life.

 

One jaunting stride off the pedestal, and Snatcher heard Mavis whisper “Have fun!” in the squeal of the wood beneath his weight. The parlor he was lead into smelled of saturated perfumes and sugary things, and the carpet - a hideous shag thing - laid out over the wood bore a bear’s head. The assistant ushered him quietly to a scarlet-curtained cubby in the curving wall, the drape rattling as it was pulled aside by a powdered hand.

“Call for me if you need any, ehm, assistance,” the assistant tittered. Snatcher grunted and stepped inside.

The first dress was a deep and vibrant brandy, some red fabric that was stitched into the satin giving it a lovely sheen when it caught the light. From what Archibald could see as he shrugged off his shirt, it flared out at the bottom, somewhere down the calf - mermaid? A-line? He couldn’t remember for the life of him. Set aside on a pale, white chair was an equally-loud blue corset, lined with jewels and beads that glittered over the shoes they’d thoughtfully placed beneath the cushion.

Well, he had no wig, or makeup, or anything - but he supposed he’d have to work with what he had.

After an awkward amount of struggling and wheezing, and a particularly poignant length of silence as his ever-hesitant assistant helped him lace both the dress and the corset up his back, Snatcher paused before he backed out of the small cubby. He tried to ignore his face, the discoloration of his skin against the satin, the bulging of certain places beneath the corset, above the corset, in the corset. He examined his shape, the way the ivory-boned bodice gave a certain curve to his back that gave him some semblance of curves, and the way his legs looked when he raised the train just a hint.

When he finally trundled out to Mavis’ squeals of delight and excited applause, he figured that this was not such a ridiculous idea after all.

The dresses that followed all passed in a happy blur; an A-line with a heavy bust that made him snort, an emerald ballgown that he could barely wear through the doorways, a deep crimson gown with a bustle so glittery and ridiculous that Mavis actually chortled when he came strutting out, and so on and so on. The sun was scintillating a deep and rustic orange in the bay windows when his assistant snuck one final dress into his cubby, just as he was buttoning up his shirt.

It was blue; a color he had never much liked before, but he was wiggling into the thing before he could take another breath. It was another A-line, slit high up to his mid-thigh (a joke, no doubt, thought up by Cabecou) - but in this instance, he rather liked it. The design in front  was odd, a muted purple in comparison to the deep blue of the fabric, and it was all outlined and trimmed with dark, black feathers and beading that hugged every exaggerated curve, curves made fluid by one well-fitting corset. The golden chains that braced his stomach jingled as he examined himself, and - damn him - he felt his jaw loosen, ever so slightly.

He felt as though brides shared the empty feeling that swept through him, the tingling at the base of his spine.

“Oh --!”

He nearly giggled (a sound Archibald P. Snatcher most certainly never made) when Mavis clapped a tiny hand over her mouth, mounting the small stage with a flourish of his skirt. Cabecou, who had remained stiff-lipped and concerned for the entire appointment, even gave him one appraising look; whether she was simply happy to rid herself of the two or not, Snatcher grinned none-the-less.

This was it. This was his dress.

“Oh, it’s perfect!” He could have sworn the little woman that clutched at his hand was nearly crying. “Oh, we have to have it!”

Cabecou heaved a great sigh of relief, guiding Mavis eagerly away to pay for the thing.

 

Mavis had been giving her fond spiel of the blue fabric and golden tassels and high slit and black feathers since she’d trotted up to the counter, and Snatcher hadn’t once thought to quiet her. A low, fuzzy feeling still bubbled in his gut, and it contented him enough to walk a little taller, to stride a bit wider.

He chanced a glance across the street as he held the door for his tittering companion. Across the uneven pavement, with the dark orange burn of the sunset freckling their pale little necks, a new flock of young ladies and their straight-backed suitors crowded the closing parlors, the same wide window showing the same gaudy wares their topic of nervous laughter. He could not help but stare at their sloping waists, the ways their flat stomachs plateaued into the wide crinoline-supported planes of their skirts, they way they looked exactly like the last herd of fawns that he had been so focused on earlier.

A small bubble of pride rose in his throat, enough to push his face into confident smile. No, no corset could make his paunch that flat; no bustles were commercially made to fit the considerable span of his waist - and women of his age most certainly did not have jowls.

But he doubted they could look as good as he did in that dress - his dress - and that was all the reason he needed for a smug grin and a confident stride.