The pain ends and the whirling whiteness ends and Vanyel is alone for one very, very brief moment.
And then he's not alone; then a beautiful man is there. He's tall, wearing Heraldic whites, has a head of thick curly hair; he's lit, too, from behind, casting his face in shadow. The man smiles; Vanyel can see that much. He reaches out reassuringly, steadying Vanyel with an arm on his elbow.
Vanyel remembers him. He leans into the support gratefully, exhaling slowly. "Thank you," he says, tone serious.
"Of course," Death says. It's what he's here for; making this easier in this moment. He doesn't let go, and Vanyel doesn't try to make him. He leans into the Shadow-Lover instead, turns, wraps his free arm around his shoulders and slowly relaxes. Death rubs his back, holding him close.
For a moment, it's just that: relief. That last moment had been terrifying and painful and there was no way to know if it would really, truly be good enough. Only the hopes that his sacrifice would cause enough damage to stop the army long enough for reinforcements to arrive, would take out Leareth so the army would, too, be leaderless.
And then a thought strikes him and he makes a pained noise. "Stefen. I have to—"
"You can't," Death says. He's not unapologetic, still soothing, trying to reassure him. "It's not like last time."
It wouldn't be. Last time he'd been fatally wounded, given the chance to rest or live. It could have gone either way. This time, there wouldn't be anything of him left physically to return to.
Vanyel lets out a soft groan, resting his forehead on Death's shoulder. "But then Stef'll be alone."
It's not comforting. He thinks about last time, he thinks about Stef being alone, he thinks about what he'd figured out during his last moments alive, and says, "Last time we met, you said 'You won't be alone.'"
"You knew that Stef was—that 'Lendel was—"
Death lets out a soft, amused chuckle, and gives Vanyel's hair an affectionate, gentle tug. "Of course. Who do you think I am?"
Vanyel follows the movement, pulls back enough to look at him. "You couldn't explain back then."
"Of course not."
"But 'Lendel was..." Vanyel swallows around a lump. "...You probably still can't tell me anything."
The Shadow-Lover considers, then smiles again. "It's a little different now," he says. "You already know, and you're too far gone this time for it to change anything." He leans forward, kisses Vanyel's forehead, and Vanyel sees—
'Lendel, as Vanyel remembers him, seen through Death's eyes; Tylendel stumbles, he reaches out eagerly, graspingly desperate for that death he claimed himself, and then the insanity clears from his eyes and he's stricken, miserable, lonely.
"I can't," he says, the first words out of his mouth to Death. "I can't, I'm sorry, I made a mistake, I need to go back—"
"I'm sorry," the Shadow-Lover says, sympathetically, (Vanyel hears from the inside) and Tylendel begins weeping helplessly.
Tylendel buries himself in Death's arms as he holds him, rocks him, (and it's strange, because of course Vanyel always remembered 'Lendel as he'd known him, but that was through the perspective of the time even in memory; looking at him now, as an outsider, 'Lendel was only seventeen, and even if that's less than a year younger than Stef, he notices how young 'Lendel had been back then) keeps him tucked close, and 'Lendel bawls helplessly, shaken. He hadn't been in his right mind; in dying, could only be in his right mind again and have to see everything that happened again through a perspective of rational understanding.
Eventually, he cries himself dry. "Is Gala okay?" he asks, numbly.
"I met Gala," Death says, softly. "She went on to where she wished to. I cannot tell you any of that."
"No. She wouldn't want me to know."
"I'm sorry for your loss," Death says, tone gentle.
"A-and is Staven—"
Death passes a hand gently over 'Lendel's curls. "He chose to move on," he says. "To return to the world in a new form. I don't think he believed you'd follow so soon."
'Lendel's tear-stained face looks like he can't believe that, not really, but he doesn't have time to think about it either. "Back," he says. "Can I also? Can I—no, I need to."
"There is a chance you can see your twin again, although you won't be twins any more. Life has a way of bringing people back together—," Death begins, but he can't finish; 'Lendel has seized him, squeezing his arms tightly.
"Send me back!" 'Lendel says, voice catching. "Please! I need to get back to Vanyel. I've left him all alone, I wasn't thinking, I couldn't think—"
"You won't remember," Death cautions him.
"It doesn't matter," 'Lendel says. "However long it takes." He squares his shoulders, tightens his jaw. "I need to get back to Vanyel."
The image fades, and Vanyel is left staggering, caught again in Death's strong arms. He swallows around the knot in his throat as hot tears spill down his cheeks.
"Can I go back, then?" he asks, and laughs, quiet. "To Stef. Are we always going to be chasing each other around and around?"
Death says, "You have a third choice, Vanyel. For your service to the world, as I understand it, and so that you may continue your duty if you wish," and smiles at him, encouragingly.
Vanyel listens as Death explains the option: staying in the forest, staying a guardian forever, and he feels light-headed, dizzy. "What did Yfandes choose?"
"She's waiting on your choice," Death says. "She'll go where you go. To the Havens, back to life, to stay in unrest in the forest with you. She said she wasn't about to decide for you."
Knowing that much, knowing that Yfandes has left the choice in his hands, that she'll see it through with him regardless, is steadying. It makes him feel like he'll be able to make the right choice. It's hard. It's easier to want to rush back, but being offered a third option means that he has the chance for duty.
It means Stef will have to live, though, that miserable life alone that Vanyel had tasted, that Tylendel had struggled back to try to save him from. A half-life with your soul torn in two, bleeding love out into a void that can't return it.
That, too, decides him.
"Not without Stef," he says. "Whatever bargain I have to make. I'll guard the forest, but not without Stef. If he can't come along, if there's no way to make that happen, then I'll go back to him instead."
Death isn't surprised, not exactly. He laughs, though, and runs a tender hand along Vanyel's cheek, leans in and kisses him gently, with all the fondness of an old lover reminded once again why they're in love.
"I thought you'd say that," he says.
Stefen's task takes over sixty years, and when they finally call him, he goes with aching joints into the forest, sits in a cave, plays until he can't play, sleeps until he's taken away.
When he opens his eyes, Death smiles at him; a tall man in Heraldic whites with white hair and a shadowed face. He doesn't need to take Stef into his arms, comfort him. Life had been hard and death is a relief, as it is for many, but Stefen hadn't gone into it scared of the unknown.
"You already know this," Death begins, without preamble. "But you have a choice—"
"Vanyel," Stef says promptly. His figure flickers; he's two people at once, and only one person. Mostly one, partly another. Both, but never neither. "I choose Vanyel."