You haven't touched any of your old clothes since returning from Beta Colony two years ago. Today you discover that your armsmen have put them all into Olivia's wardrobe. You walk in and she's holding up the dress you wore to your second divorce up against her body in front of the mirror, looking sternly at herself the way she does when she doesn't have to smile for anyone.
She notices you in the mirror. She smiles for you. It's genuine. It always is, but you always look.
"None of these have been altered," she says, waving at all of your old dresses lined up in the back of her wardrobe. "Has Szabo never seen a naked woman? Or more than one?"
"You could ask him," you suggest and she laughs. "Would you wear them?" you ask.
She shrugs. "They're beautiful. It would be a waste to let them rot."
You come up behind her and kiss her shoulder. You can't see any reason not to let them rot. You've wasted worse. "Mm."
"I know what you're thinking," she says. She pulls away from you, drops the dress into your hands, and starts to take her clothes off.
You blink at her. "Actually, no, but we can go with that."
She laughs. "Later." She disappears through the door into your wardrobe, returning with deep blue trousers, a grey tunic, and a matching shirt. "These might fit me better," she says. "Can you get my clip from the box, please? The blue one?"
You lay the dress to the side and rummage through the jewelry to get the blue hair clip that would complement the trousers. When you turn back around, she has your trousers buttoned all the way up and the belt buckled, with your undershirt halfway on. She looks better in your clothes than you'd do in hers. Olivia could wear anything and make it look natural. You're not sure you look natural wearing nothing.
She puts the tunic on next, slipping it up her arms and turning this into a show. She strokes her left hand down her chest as the tunic falls into place and whimpers happily. She's always said she likes your clothes, especially when you're not wearing them. It seems she likes them just as much when she's wearing them. She puts out her right hand and you put the clip into it. She twists her hair up and away, then reaches out to you again.
You kiss her and she moves against you. The cloth of the tunic rubs against your bare forearms, strange and sharp and you don't pull away. You remember this from before, the way other men's clothes felt against you. Your first husband used to kiss you as he dressed. Your second never liked to take his clothes off when he fucked you. Your third... oh, let's not think about that.
It's not painful, it's not wrong, it's merely unexpected.
Olivia asks, "what do you think?"
"I think you're beautiful," you tell her and she rolls her eyes at you, that's not always the right answer, I didn't marry you to keep playing idiotic games. That's fair. She didn't. "It fit-- it suits you." It really doesn't fit her; the only thing keeping the trousers up is the belt, and the tunic fits in probably the opposite way that dress would fit on you right now. The clothes are tailored too closely to your chosen body to fit her the way they fit you. She would get a more flattering fit on some of your back-of-the-wardrobe clothes, the ones you would never wear around those who must never, ever doubt you are a man. It doesn't fit her, no. But it suits her.
Your clothes suit her, but hers? Hers would never suit you. She can wear your clothes and laugh it off as a fun game. If you wore hers...
What would happen if you wore hers?
You notice the dress still lying where you left it, and wonder: Or yours?
"Dono?" she asks you, and you look back at her and blush, feeling abstractly guilty.
But what would happen?
You look back at the dress. It's not dangerous or mocking. It's just lying there. Of course it is, it's a dress. It's just a dress, just cloth and metal fastenings. And memories. "I wonder," you whisper.
Olivia puts her hand on your shoulder. "You don't have to," Olivia says. "I'm not--"
"I am," you say. It's your bedroom. It's your house. If you can't face memories here, where can you? There's no danger, not even of Szabo's disapproval. Olivia's never assumed you'll become a woman if she turns away for a moment. Olivia expects you to be you and damn the planet.
Decided, you start to take your clothes off.
You strip naked for her and she looks at you. She's never flinched or looked away. The scars aren't visible; the Betans are too good for that. But there's a noticeable, pointed something. Or maybe it's only a something to you. If Olivia's seen it, it's never bothered her.
You stand in front of her and the mirror, your hands on your hips, your feet angled out. You look the way you do because of bloody-minded choice. Olivia can change clothes, but you changed your body. When you were Donna, everyone used to tell you how beautiful you looked; since Beta Colony, you haven't known how to take compliments. Olivia can give them to you without you second-guessing every hint of meaning, but Olivia has always, always looked at you like you're a man.
"What do I look like to you?" you ask her.
She purses her lips. "Cold," she says judiciously. "Do you want me to call you beautiful, too?"
You don't feel cold. "I'd prefer handsome," you tell her, and she nods.
"You're handsome," she says. Then adds, "but of course, you always are. I'm still going with cold."
You pick the dress up and slowly put it on, every motion careful, every motion much too well remembered. The cloth is soft and warm against your skin. It doesn't fit right; you're the same as you always have been, but your body isn't. So much fits differently now. Your clothes. Your planet. It's amazing how much respect a flat chest and a penis will buy you. It's amazing what doesn't fit anymore, what you didn't think you were giving up. What you don't miss. What you sometimes might.
The dress fits you the way everything has, off-center, off-balance, expecting Donna and getting only you. Olivia steps behind you and fastens it into place, then pecks a kiss at the nape of your neck. You stare at yourself and your wife in the mirror. The last time you wore this dress, your hair had been in a severe bun. Now your wife can touch your bare skin.
You pitch your voice higher and bring your shoulders forwards and then push them back into how Donna stood, how you presented her. "Who do I look like?" you ask Olivia. "Donna?"
She frowns against your neck. "That's a terrible question, Dono."
"I feel less ridiculous than I did when I was Donna." You examine yourself critically in the mirror. "That's unexpected."
"What does Donna look like?" Olivia asks.
You want to tell her you know, but she doesn't know. "Donna looks like a Vor lady out of a Vor lord's wet dreams," you say. You spent twenty years playing that role, you know it much too well. It was occasionally fun. It was more often soul-destroying. It sent you to Beta Colony in desperation, because only in desperation could you make the change. It was what you needed and it took the risk of losing everything to make it worth it. But it has been worth it. It's been worth all of it.
"As a Countess," Olivia says, "I can say with authority: you look like a Vor lord out of a Vor lady's wet dreams. More specifically, mine." She wraps her arms around you and leans in against your back. "Wearing a dress doesn't make you a woman. You're who you always are. Just... wearing a dress."
"It's only cloth," you say. "It's not magical." It's a pretty lie, one you would love to believe. On Beta Colony, you believed it, but Barrayar has a way of getting into your brain and driving you mad. Vorrutyers know that more than most.
You pull away from her. She looks at you, concerned, and you need to show her you can laugh about it. You need to show yourself you can laugh about it. Keep pretending until it's real; the Vor do nothing else. "My lady, this was very educational, but I suggest we now explore the possibilities of taking our clothes off."
"I know exactly what you're doing, Dono," she says -- that's good; you don't -- but then leads you to bed anyway.