Twenty years ago.
The last time we celebrated Muqin’s birthday with her, it was twenty years ago.
Upon later reflection, perhaps the realization ought not to have affected Lan Xichen as it did. But twenty years is long enough to be called a long time by any measure of reckoning; and Lan Xichen is thirty now, an orphan for fully twice the span that he had either of his parents, and sometimes it feels as if he no longer remembers how it was to call for A-Niang, and Fuqin instead of Shufu, or not have to explain to new acquaintances that his parents have been dead for nearly two decades.
What did he and Wangji do on Mother’s last birthday? Lan Xichen remembers their father making a cake—a flourless one, because Mother wanted to try a new recipe she found at the library—and Wangji lay down on his stomach in the living room and labored over a card for her all morning, squeaking in dismay when Mother pretended to peer over his shoulders to see what he was doing, and then he wrapped it up in silky tissue paper and presented it to her with such delight on his solemn little face that Muqin refused to let go of him for the next twenty minutes.
Xichen was in the kitchen helping their father with the cake, he thinks. Fuqin handed him three little bottles of food coloring and told him to color the frosting, which Lan Xichen did with breathless care to ensure that the frosting turned out their mother’s favorite shade of buttery yellow.
None of them knew then that it was the last birthday they would celebrate together as a family. Mother died only two months later, quietly in her bed at Fuqin’s side, and a heart attack carried their father off six months after that.
Mother’s birthday has always been something of a private holiday within the family. When she was alive their father organized quiet celebrations for her, and Lan Xichen always spent time with Wangji that day after she passed on. But today his brother has been caught up with grading at the university where he works, so Lan Xichen is celebrating the bittersweet anniversary alone.
“You would have been fifty-six today, Mother,” he says, as he burns incense at the family memorial altar and puts a pair of red-bean buns on a platter in front of her photograph: one for her and one for Father, who loved mother’s sweet baozi so much that Shufu used to tease him about it at family dinners. “Shufu and Wangji are doing well, and so am I. And Jingyi is big enough to fit into that sweater A-Jue made from the yarn you were saving—do you remember when you took me and A-Zhan to help you pick it out?”
His mother’s smiling face looks down at him from her wedding picture, as silent and tender as she always is. Muqin is resplendent in the old qipao dress she wore that day, the only luxury she really had for her hasty wedding; Lan Xichen can almost feel its smooth embroidered flowers and pankou under his fingertips, since she often took the dress out to look at it and show it to her two sons. It was eventually put away in storage along with the rest of her belongings, but Lan Xichen found the qipao while he was preparing for his own wedding some fifteen years later, and he brought it to the house he moved into with his husband just after their son was born.
Prodded by some strange urgency, Lan Xichen makes his way to the bedroom and rifles through his closet, pulling out the long silk sleeve where the qipao dress has lain undisturbed for the past eighteen months. The dress, when he removes it from the sleeve, is mostly unchanged: only creased at the spots where it was folded, and a little dusty-smelling from being in the closet.
He shakes it out, breathing in the familiar scent of his mother’s perfume clinging to the collar, and then he walks over to the full-length mirror by the bed and holds the qipao up in front of him.
For a moment, it almost looks as if—
Lan Xichen stares at his reflection, bewildered.
“Oh,” he gasps, holding one of the bedposts in a vice grip. “Oh.”
* * *
When Lan Xichen was in his teens, Shufu hired a family friend to teach him how to do makeup: mainly how to make his face more angular, and deepen the shadows around his nose and eyebrows, and render his eyes just a little narrower than they truly were with highlighting powder. But it was an art like any other, so Liang-popo showed him how to do different kinds of makeup, too: how to make his cheeks look rounder, and his chin smaller, and call more attention to his lips and eyes than natural light did on its own. Lan Xichen never expected to use that half of what Liang-popo taught him, but he still remembers the basics: and his own face, still smooth and unlined by the sun thanks to the skincare regimens Nie Huaisang keeps coaxing him into, accepts the blush-toned powders and creams like paper soaking up ink.
Moisturizer, primer. Foundation, and concealing cream under his eyes. He took off his glasses and replaced them with contacts earlier, and tied back his long hair while he smoothed on a pale red lip tint; and now, with most of his makeup finished, he paints a small, dark mole high on his forehead—one that his mother had, but neither he nor Wangji inherited—and mists his face with setting spray.
He yanks his hair elastic out with shaking fingers, groping in the vanity drawer for bobby pins before putting his hair up into a loose chignon, and then he finally lifts his eyes and looks into the mirror again.
If he were not sitting, Lan Xichen thinks dizzily, he would have fainted dead away.
With shaking fingers, he removes his pants and shirt (one of A-Jue’s thicker pajama tops, since the weather was chilly last night) and divests himself of his binder, tossing it onto the bed with the rest of his clothes before he unbuttons the qipao dress and pulls it on. The dress fits like a second skin despite being several inches too short, but the side slits are so high that it hardly matters, and the collar encloses Lan Xichen’s pale throat exactly like it did his mother’s in her wedding photograph: just lax enough that he can’t really feel it, but smooth enough not to bother him either way.
Lan Xichen pads back towards the mirror, his bare feet dragging over the carpet as he goes, and then he looks up and meets his mother’s eyes for the first time in twenty years.
The resemblance, so far as it goes, is astounding. Mother was shorter, but she seemed quite tall to the ten-year-old son she left behind; and she had the same eyes and brows and nose and even the same cheekbones, with slightly fuller lips which were never thinned by parenthood as Lan Xichen’s lips have been. But then again, Wen Mingyan was a schoolteacher and not a harried lawyer who doubled as a museum thief by night, and her children were not so accomplished at getting into trouble as Lan Xichen’s own tiny son is.
At the thought of his baby, Lan Xichen hurries into the next room where A-Yi is fast asleep in his crib, with his thumb in his mouth and his pudgy little legs sticking straight up in the air. He rolls into Lan Xichen’s arms without waking, like a ball rolling into a comfortable hollow in the ground, and nestles happily under his chin on the short trip back to the bedroom.
Lan Xichen pulls a chair up in front of the mirror and sits down with Jingyi yawning in his lap, gazing at what could have been a window opening onto the past: his mother, young and strong and still with the bridal blush on her cheeks, cradling a fluffy-haired toddler that could have been the Lan Xichen of twenty-eight years ago.
He presses his lips to A-Yi’s chubby nose; and in the mirror his mother, seemingly overwhelmed by some kind of great feeling, kisses him.
Lan Xichen’s lips quiver. “Muqin—”
Suddenly, a door bangs on the ground floor, and Lan Xichen jolts back to full awareness just in time to hear his husband and brother talking in the kitchen. Mingjue seems to have returned with armfuls of grocery bags, which crinkle so loudly that A-Yi blinks awake and starts to fuss, tugging at a lock of hair that slipped out of Xichen’s loose updo.
“A-Huan?” Mingjue calls, followed by the swift thuds of his feet and Wangji’s coming up the stairs. “A-Huan, is A-Yi…”
And then both of them screech to a halt on the landing, gawking through the open door at Lan Xichen’s soft hair and make-up and the red bridal qipao. For a moment, Lan Xichen wonders what the picture looks like—he hasn’t worn a dress since before Wangji was born, and he’s certainly never worn make-up like this, so for all he knows it might look like some strange woman broke into the house to kidnap baby A-Yi.
But then Mingjue lets out a quiet breath and comes over to kiss him, brushing aside the tangled curls A-Yi pulled down, and wraps him up in a tight hug that smells of soap and sawdust from Mingjue’s woodworking studio.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” he breathes, pressing his cheek to Lan Xichen’s. “I stopped to pick up dinner and fetch Wangji from the university after I left work.”
“It’s fine,” Lan Xichen murmurs back, as Jingyi stares at the large buttons on Mingjue’s sleeve before testing his tiny white teeth on them. “I got some egg porridge ready, earlier. Do you want to eat a little before we get dinner started?”
Nie Mingjue opens his mouth, probably to declare that hot vegetable congee with pidan would be delicious after being outside in the cold; but he never manages to say so, because Wangji makes a choked noise from the hallway before taking a shaky step forward.
“Xiongzhang,” he says hoarsely. “You look, you look just like—”
Mingjue takes A-Yi into his arms, and Lan Xichen reaches out towards his brother. When Wangji staggers into his embrace, all Lan Xichen can think of is that their mother never had the chance to see A-Zhan grow up so well, or know what a name he would make for himself, or even how his face would grow into a perfect meld of hers and Fuqin’s after his baby fat melted away.
She would have had to wait many years to know that last, though, Lan Xichen smiles to himself. A-Zhan’s cheeks were as round as A-Yi’s until after he started university.
Lan Xichen pats Wangji’s shoulder. “Mm, A-Zhan?”
Wangji hugs him impossibly tighter.