They say every year a student dies, usually a suicide, someone who can't handle the pressure and decides to quietly end it all.
This year it's a little more spectacular, and Yinsen is an eyewitness.
He opens the invitation to Ephraim's lab with a muffled groan. "Another amazing breakthrough?" he laughs to his roommate, who just rolls his eyes.
Still, he goes, because he's curious. Because Ephraim is a pain in the ass and borrows money without paying it back a little too often, but he is also very, very smart. And on occasion some of his "amazing breakthroughs" really are just that – amazing.
Tonight Ephraim has gathered a group of friends in his lab. "I did it!" he exults. "I can open a wormhole!"
There is the usual round of insults and mockery and banter. Ephraim does not budge from his stance, though, and at last he stops teasing them and gets down to it. With a little help from his assistant – everyone knows they are sleeping together but nobody says it out loud – he gets the equipment up and running, and then pulls the lever.
Immediately the lights die, as the power levels in the lab surge beyond what the grid can handle.
The lab's generator kicks on right away, and when it does, everyone is able to see it. A shimmering blue rip in the fabric of their very existence. A hole in the universe. Right here and now, in this lab, in this university, in this town.
Yinsen is stunned speechless.
Through the wormhole he can see stars and gas clouds. And what looks like a man-made structure, arching from some place just beyond the portal in that other world. It looks like a bridge made of color and light – and oh it is beautiful, so beautiful.
"Who's coming with me?" Ephraim calls. He waves a little to his assistant, and then he steps through.
For a second Yinsen can see him standing on that rainbow bridge. Then he sees something else, something with the same shape as a man.
Then the lights go out, and the portal snaps shut.
They never do get it to open again.
The traffic in Cairo is terrible, and of course, never more so than on this night. All Yinsen wants is to get to the airport so he can take his flight home. His wife called on the way to the hospital; if he can make this flight, he might actually be able to get home in time for the birth of his son.
He steps off the sidewalk and hails a cab. It sails past him, and he bites back a curse. He scans the street, looking for another.
From the alley behind him, he hears a sudden raised voice. He turns to look, and immediately turns away again. Street crime is common in this part of the city; it's better to pretend you didn't see anything than to try and be a hero.
"And the watch," says one of the robbers.
"No, I'm keeping that," says the victim. He speaks passable Arabic, but with an American accent.
"Hand it over," says the second robber, and Yinsen edges further down the street, trying to get away from the alley without drawing attention to himself.
"How about I keep the watch, and you go away right now," says the American. "Because I'm starting to get angry and you really don't want that. Trust me."
Finally, there is a cab. Yinsen steps off the curb and waves like mad at it.
Just as he steps in, he hears a terrible roar coming from the alley.
Moscow in winter is truly unforgiving. Yinsen hates it here, but the pay is good and he sends everything he can back home to his family. He won't have to be here much longer, and for that he is grateful. He isn't cut out to be a lecturer – he misses being in the lab, using his hands and building things.
They drink a lot in Moscow, mostly to keep warm, he supposes. He can't join in, but he does permit himself to smile at them sometimes, these drunk Muscovites wrapped up in furs and thick scarves. The vodka makes them a little less grim and somber, a little more prone to laughter and fun.
Like the couple in front of him on the train. They're sitting squashed together in a seat meant for one. She's mostly in his lap, skirt hiked up to show shapely legs. Her hair is fiery red, and she smiles a lot, obviously in love. Her hands roam over the man's chest and shoulders, then reach up to cup his face.
Yinsen looks away, giving them as much privacy as he can. Slowly he begins to extract a book from his briefcase. The train ride to his apartment is long and boring, and he gets a lot of reading done during these commutes.
He pulls the book out, glances up, and freezes.
The man across from him is still sitting in his seat. But now his head is hanging low, his chin on his chest. He looks like he's asleep, except no man ever fell asleep that fast – especially when he had a lap full of such a beautiful woman.
The red-haired woman is nowhere in sight.
Yinsen looks around for her. He debates with himself over whether he should do anything. Quite possibly the man really is just asleep.
Slowly he opens his book. He sets it on his lap.
But he doesn't read.
The conference is dull beyond his worst fears, and when they are finally released from the last presentation, Yinsen goes gladly. It's his second-to-last day in Budapest, and he can't wait to get home.
The hotel restaurant serves dinner, but he isn't hungry. He puts on his coat and goes for a walk, wanting to see something of the city before he has to leave. All week he's been cooped up in lecture halls, listening to boring men and women give boring talks on boring subjects. He's ready for something different.
Not far from the hotel he finds a theater, and a play just about to begin. He has no idea what it is, but he decides on impulse to buy a ticket. He's short on cash, though, so he goes around the corner to the bank he passed on the way here. He remembers seeing an ATM machine in the lobby.
There's a man standing outside the bank, a man who wasn't there ten minutes ago. When he sees Yinsen walk up, he makes a curt gesture. He's holding a slim, curved black object that Yinsen can't identify. "Bank's closed."
Inside the bank, an alarm is wailing. And he's pretty sure he can hear the sound of breaking glass.
The play didn't look all that interesting, he suddenly thinks. Maybe he'll just go back to the hotel and go to bed early.
"I can't… God, I can't breathe."
Yinsen says nothing. There really isn't anything he can say. Either Stark learns to live with this, and dies when the Ten Rings is done with him – or he lets it kill him now. The end result will still be the same.
At times he regrets his role in the whole thing. When Raza ordered him to keep Tony Stark alive, he argued that it couldn't be done. Since the warfare in the region swallowed Gulmira whole and stole his life, he's seen too many men die of similar wounds. He knew right away that he was facing the impossible.
He did try, though. The electromagnet was inspired, although he is sorry he couldn't do better. He lacked the time, know-how, and materials to make it any smaller. As he was carving out the hole in Stark's chest, it occurred to him that what he was doing wasn't surgery – it was butchery.
But it worked, and for now Stark is alive, furious with him and in terrible pain and complaining endlessly that he can't catch his breath.
"No," Yinsen lies. He knows what Stark wants. But their supply of opiate is very low, and he doesn't want to use any of it unless he absolutely has to.
"Damn," Stark sighs, and he shifts on the bed. He's lying on his right side, left arm pressed to his chest, his right hand clenched into a tight fist on the pillow beside his head. He's very pale, and despite the chill air this deep inside the cave, he's sweating.
"You need to relax," Yinsen says. "Your heart cannot take this strain right now."
"I can't," Stark says, for the hundredth time. "I…I can't fill my lungs. I can't breathe."
With a sigh, Yinsen sits on the edge of the bed behind him. He could have killed Stark on the operating table. It would have been so easy. Just one slip of the knife, and that already damaged heart would have beat its last.
Murder is wrong, but he wonders if maybe he shouldn't have done it anyway. He could have called it mercy – something the Ten Rings certainly won't show him.
Stark twitches again, kicking out a little, his face screwing up with pain. His hand on the pillow is white-knuckled and shaking, fingernails digging into his palm. In spite of his best efforts, he can't quite keep silent, though, and a small choked whimper escapes him.
A long time ago, Yinsen used to sit like this beside his son when the boy woke up from a bad dream. He would sit on the bed and reach out a hand and comb his fingers through his son's dark hair, just the way he does for Stark right now. Sometimes he would sing to his son, but he will never sing again.
"What--?" Stark jerks his head away. "What are you doing?"
"Trying to make you relax," Yinsen says calmly. "You are putting unnecessary stress on your heart. You must calm down." He reaches out again and repeats the gesture, starting at the nape of Stark's neck, moving his fingers up through thick hair, pulling ever so slightly. Then again. And again.
Stark makes a quiet, pained sound, but he does not move away.
Yinsen bows his head and tries to remember what it felt like to have a son. A wife. A home.
After a long time he feels an ache in his wrist, and he looks up. A faint smile curves his mouth. Stark has finally fallen asleep. It's not an easy rest, by the looks of it – lines of pain are still etched on his face, and the fingers that were clenched into a fist have barely uncurled – but he is truly sleeping.
Yinsen is glad for him. It's probably the last real rest he's ever going to have.