Back to the Beginning
Who was the one who had pushed her?
Ning Ning wanted to go out and take a look as well, but someone pressed her shoulders down.
“There’s not much time. I talk, you listen.” Shi Zhong Tang had appeared in front of her without her noticing. He grabbed her shoulders with both hands and helped her up from the floor.
“The ticket you had just used was a main character ticket, every masked person has one—their portraits are on it.” Shi Zhong Tang said, “You still remember, right? I took three of them, used three of them—after the third time, I turned into what I am now.”
He smiled as he knocked on the jade mask on his face with his finger, which in turn made a crisp sound.
“But I didn’t take this ticket out of my own free will, someone had stuffed it in my pocket.” Ning Ning said doubtfully, “That counts too?”
“Then you really should thank her.” Shi Zhong Tang thought for a moment before smiling. “If not for this ticket, you would have been deemed to have snuck in right now.”
Ning Ning suddenly had a thought, she asked, “What’s the consequence of sneaking in?”
“If you have time to think about that, why not think about this movie?” Shi Zhong Tang said with a serious expression, “Ning Ning, do you know what is the biggest difference between main character tickets and other tickets?”
He was always grinning cheekily, it was rare for him to speak to her in such a serious tone. Once she determined the gravity of the matter, Ning Ning temporarily put the matter of sneaking in aside. She looked at him and asked, “What’s the difference?”
“No matter if it’s an ordinary ticket or a designated ticket, you get to decide whether or not you want to change the fate of the main character, but a main character ticket is different. The decision lies with the person who gave you the ticket. They will usually give you a limitation at the start of the movie.” Shi Zhong Tang said, “For example, when I had transmigrated as the conman, the limitation I was given was that I could not earn money by cheating people and had to do it the lawful way.”
“What if you ignored this limitation and forcibly cheated someone out of their money?” Ning Ning decided to get a hold of the worst case scenario after thinking about it for a while.
“If you ignored the limitation…” Shi Zhong Tang smiled, “You would go back to the beginning.”
Go back to the beginning?
What does that mean?
Ning Ning still wanted to get to the bottom of it, but the main theme had already started playing. It was the voice of a woman, singing in a languid and charming voice, “So many men, they all love me. Elder brother and younger brother, which one do I choose?”
A sense of weightlessness came over her. Shi Zhong Tang’s lips were opening and closing in front of her, but Ning Ning could not make out a thing he was saying. His voice was distorted along with his face. When her vision cleared up again, she was already standing in an atelier.
It was evening. The setting sun looked like a melting egg yolk. The wind was blowing from the window, causing the white curtains, the paper on the easel and her long hair to flutter around in the breeze.
“Limitation.” A woman’s voice suddenly rang out by her ear, languid and charming, it was the voice from the theme song. “Portray my role completely. You cannot say what I won’t say, cannot do what I won’t do.”
“What?” Ning Ning was taken aback.
What kind of limitation was that?
Hadn’t she been doing that all along? She had treated Life Theater as a place to hone her acting skills. She would always try her best to portray each character, not saying anything the character would not say, not doing anything the character would not do.
With a creak, the door behind her suddenly opened.
Ning Ning turned her head and saw a young man standing at the doorway. He was nineteen or twenty years old with an elegant face, wearing black frame glasses. The shape of his eyebrows made him look troubled. He was hugging a book titled <<No Longer Human>>. On the surface, he looked like a university student from the literature department.
This face was so very familiar. Wasn’t this…a younger version of the scriptwriter Li Shan Zhu?
“Li Shan Zhu?” Ning Ning probed as she called out.
“Big Sister Little Ai.” Sure enough, he answered as he walked over with the book in his arms. His eyes were shifty as he did not dare to look at her straight in the eyes. “Are you here to pack up brother’s paintings too?”
Ning Ning turned and looked at the easel.
A gust of wind had kicked up just then, flipping through the papers affixed on the easel—the first piece, the second piece, the third piece…a few consecutive pieces were showing paintings of the same person. It was a woman with beautiful wavy hair like the waves of the Aegean Sea1. Her smile, too, was very beautiful, like the smile Venus gave you the moment you opened up the shell of the scallop.2
Ning Ning realised that she also recognised this face.
It was the girl who had sent her home along with Wen Yu at the ending of <<Dreams of the Future>>. She was still childlike that year, but now, in the painting, she had matured like a peach.
What was her name?
Connecting it together with the ‘Little Ai’ which Li Shan Zhu had said just now, Ning Ning reckoned that her name was most probably the name in the script, Zhang Xin Ai.
What about the plot? Would it be the same as the script?
Li Shan Zhu walked past Ning Ning, placing his copy of <> on the table by the side. His fair and slender fingers reached out to the paintings on the easel, removing the paintings on the easel one by one. When he was removing one of the paintings, his body froze. He glanced back at Ning Ning in a panic, his face was already completely red.
There was a nude painting on the easel.
To a pure university student, the painting was too stimulating. Zhang Xin Ai was reclining on the sofa by the window, no piece of cloth was on her. She was draped in sunlight and her long hair, her fair skin had pale red love bites that looked as if flower petals had fallen on her.
Atelier, hiding a painting, Zhang Xin Ai, Li Shan Zhu.
Didn’t she see this setting before?
It was completely the same setting as <<Elder Brother’s Lover>>.
According to the script, Ning Ning should go up and seduce him at this moment, but she gave up on it once she thought it through.
After experiencing the events of <<My Angel>>, Ning Ning realised that the script was completely unreliable. What did ‘adapted from a true story’ mean? It meant that through artistic processing, the story would only be half-true, completely following the script would only spoil things.
“Why are you dragging your feet?” Thus, Ning Ning did not seduce him. She crossed her arms and blandly urged him on, “Any slower and the sky would get dark.”
“…Ok.” Li Shan Zhu answered quietly. She could not make out whether he was shy or disappointed. He continued to pack up the paintings on the easel. In an act of desperation, he tore the nude painting without giving it a second thought.
Ning Ning shook her head. Just as she was about to go up and help him, she suddenly received a shock.
The torn painting had reverted back to its original condition, Li Shan Zhu put the paintings back one by one with extremely fast speed. Once he was done, he walked backwards out of the atelier. Everything happened so fast that Ning Ning could barely see what was happening.
The door closed with a thud.
Ning Ning was the only person left in the atelier.
She felt the wind on her body, her back felt cold, what exactly happened?
With a creak, the door behind her suddenly opened.
Ning Ning turned her head and saw Li Shan Zhu standing at the doorway while hugging his copy of <<No Longer Human>>.
“Li Shan Zhu?” Ning Ning looked at him with doubt and surprise.
“Big Sister Little Ai.” Li Shan Zhu’s eyes were shifty as he did not dare to look at her straight in the eyes. “Are you here to pack up brother’s paintings too?”
Ning Ning was astounded, what the heck was he doing?
Li Shan Zhu walked past Ning Ning, placing his copy of <<No Longer Human>> on the table by the side. His fair and slender fingers reached out to the paintings on the easel, removing the paintings on the easel one by one. When he was removing one of the paintings, his body froze. He glanced back at Ning Ning in a panic, his face was already completely red.
Ning Ning had thought that he was a little dumb and cute earlier, but she only felt shivers now.
“Li Shan Zhu,” She asked while shivering, “what the heck are you doing going in and out of the room?”
Li Shan Zhu was stunned for a moment. Then, the weird scene happened again. The paintings went back to their original position one by one, he then walked backwards past Ning Ning, the door closing with a thud.
After only a few seconds later, the door opened with a creak again, he once again stood at the doorway while hugging his <<No Longer Human>> book, gazing at her.
This repeated for three or four more times before Ning Ning finally understood what Shi Zhong Tang meant by “going back to the beginning”.
The main character held the power for the main character ticket, not the audience.
The initiative for the movie Ning Ning was in the hands of Zhang Xin Ai instead of hers.
According to the limitations Zhang Xin Ai had set for her, Ning Ning could not say what Zhang Xin Ai wouldn’t say, could not do what Zhang Xin Ai wouldn’t do. On the first loop, Ning Ning was supposed to seduce Li Shan Zhu but didn’t do so. The second time, Ning Ning said something she shouldn’t have, thus the movie had rewound straight back to the opening.
“In other words, if I don’t act according to her request…” Ning Ning murmured, “I will have to act in this movie forever.”
The door opened with a creak, Li Shan Zhu was standing at the doorway, hugging his copy of <<No Longer Human>>.
“Li Shan Zhu?”
“Big Sister Little Ai, are you here to pack up brother’s paintings too?”
Skipping ahead the familiar opening, Li Shan Zhu stood in front of the nude painting, turning his head to look at Ning Ning.
This seduction was unavoidable.
Ning Ning slowly cracked a sweet smile and walked forward.
She was thinking with every step she was taking, “If I were Zhang Xin Ai, how would I seduce him? I cannot let anyone find out, I cannot make him hate me either, and more importantly, I cannot leave any obvious loopholes…”
She stood still in front of the painting, her smile turning a little melancholic.
“They are all paintings of me,” she muttered, “he must have loved me a lot.”
Li Shan Zhu was taken aback, then he acknowledged it before lowering his head.
The wind breeze was blowing onto their body, the atelier was silent save for the sound of rustling paper.
“I want to paint.” Ning Ning suddenly said, “He painted so many pictures of me, but I have not done a single one of him…Shan Zhu.”
Li Shan Zhu did not think that she would suddenly call his name out, he was caught off guard for a moment before answering, “I’m here, what is it?”
“Can you do me a favour?” Ning Ning looked at him, tucking her hair behind her ears.
Li Shan Zhu only took a glance at her before lowering his head again, his voice was serious and sincere as he answered, “Anything.”
Ning Ning, “Be my model.”
Li Shan Zhu looked slightly dumbstruck, “Huh?”
“You look a lot like your brother.” Ning Ning reached out with the hand that had just tucked her hair behind her ears. Her fingers were slender and had a hint of the aroma of her shampoo—it was a rich fragrance of rose. She gazed at him deeply, like she was looking at him, like she was looking at another person through him. She said mildly, “He’s not around, can you substitute for him temporarily?”
On the surface, she was asking him to temporarily substitute his brother to be a model (in her painting).
But with a slightest bit of inattention, it could also be interpreted as something else…
But she had portrayed such deep affection for his brother, how could there be another meaning? Thinking of more than that would be defiling her. Li Shan Zhu’s eyebrows started to twitch violently, he answered in a low voice, “Ok… I will be here whenever you need me.”
Ning Ning started to smile gently, a smile that looked exactly like the person in the painting, like the goddess of love, Venus, who had descended upon the mortal realm when the scallop shell opened on the shore.
Li Shan Zhu’s face was turning bright red bit by bit. She slowly retracted her hand and took her mobile phone out. She said, “Hold on, let me look at my calendar.”
She had originally wanted to confirm the date then tell him to come over during the weekend, but she was quickly startled once she unlocked the phone.
“What’s the matter?” Li Shan Zhu was a very delicate and sensitive person, he seemed to have immediately noticed that something was off with Ning Ning.
“…It’s nothing.” Ning Ning immediately smiled as usual. “It was on silent mode, I just noticed that there were a few missed calls… Today is Wednesday, do you have anything on the weekend? If not, can we meet here at nine this weekend?”
“Ok.” Li Shan Zhu answered, then he took a glance at her before quickly shifting his eyes away. He said with a red face, “Actually, I don’t have many classes recently, I can come anytime you want.”
“Then take a photo of your timetable and send it to me when you get back.” Ning Ning smiled as she waved the phone in her hand. “Let’s meet up next time.”
After the two of them agreed, they started to pack up the things in the atelier. This was the personal atelier of Li Shan Zhu’s brother. He had temporarily left and never returned afterwards. The atelier had remained the way it was when he had left, the window was not even closed, if there had been a storm the atelier would have been a mess.
The two of them left once they packed up the paintings and closed the window.
“Big Sister Little Ai, let me send you back.” Li Shan Zhu said.
“Sure.” Ning Ning did not reject him, because she did not know where Zhang Xin Ai was currently living.
Li Shan Zhu sent her to the third floor of an apartment building then left. She only had four keys. She tested them out one by one, it didn’t take much time before she managed to open the door.
There were three rooms and a living room, it was fully furnished and elegantly decorated, there were even a lot of famous paintings on the walls. Ning Ning did not have any interest in trying to see if the paintings were genuine. She sat on the sofa and quickly took out her phone.
“So that’s how it is.” She gritted her teeth. “No wonder you gave me such a limitation.”
A memorandum was open on the phone.
It seemed that before she had transmigrated here, Zhang Xin Ai was standing in the atelier while recording something in the memorandum.
What was written on it was…
1The Aegean Sea is an elongated embayment of the Mediterranean Sea located between the Greek and Anatolian peninsulas. Wiki link
2This is a reference to the birth of the goddess Venus who was born out of a from a giant scallop shell. Wiki link