Nelan had just turned seventeen, which, of course, meant that he left the breakfast table with great dignity. He was an adult now, after all, and so was mature enough not to roll his eyes when his mother made a tiny, wistful sound as he blew out his last white name candle. There'd be a new one waiting for him when he got home, blue as the colour of his birth year, for him to light with his new match. But first, he'd have to see the Matchmaker.
He checked that the small bag of sweets – the Matchmaker's favourites, his father had murmured as he'd slipped Nelan the bag the night before – was safe in his pocket before he left the house. Arisi's Matchmaker was a special one, he had heard people say, unlike any other town's, and easiest to deal with when his mouth was full. Nelan would have to admit that their Matchmaker certainly looked special enough, with his fair hair and his blue eyes and his pink skin that turned red if he spent too much time in the sun. Among the dark-skinned Lessta, he stood out like a white egg in a pile of nightstones. He'd come through the Circle of the Ancestors some five years ago, half-dead from wounds and sickness, and stayed when Arisi's old Matchmaker had died. He was brusque and kept to himself and Nelan's mother thought that his world had been among the last to be culled by the Wraith, but nobody knew for sure. All Nelan knew was that his matches were better than anyone else's.
He pulled out his tren from behind the shed and checked that both tires were whole and the tank held enough water. Before the Matchmaker had come, these things had run on gas, and instead of their quiet putt-putt-putt their sound had been more like koff-koff-KOFF. A lot of their technology had been different before the Matchmaker had come.
The Matchmaker's house lay a bit outside Arisi, past the greenhouses and the new fabric and across the Nile. Lita, whose mother's uncle had been the old Matchmaker, said that the new Matchmaker had laughed when he'd heard the name and said that the Nile really wasn't just a river in Egypt, but Lita hadn't understood the joke. Nelan didn't either, but he wasn't going to admit that, especially not to Lita. He was going to Naresh to trade in a three-day, and he'd bring her back a token and ask her to watch the second-summer fireworks with him. The thought of her soft smile whenever she saw him made something flutter in his stomach.
He left the white houses of his hometown behind and made his way between the lush green fields, water from the irrigation system gurgling everywhere. The morning sun shone pleasantly warm and not a cloud was in sight, Nelan noted with some satisfaction. His Passageday couldn't have been any better if he'd asked for it.
The Matchmaker's house was small, stylised red flames fading slowly against the white paint of its walls. The windows and door stood open to let in the fresh, warm air, and Nelan brushed the string of bells with his hand. They tinkled his presence through the house as he waited in the doorway, craning his neck to see inside. The Matchmaker's living room looked like any other, orange and brown pillows and cushions strewn around a low oblong table that still held the empty bowls of the Matchmaker's breakfast. A tapestry showing the First One's mastery of fire hung on one wall and shelves with books and knick-knacks lined the others. The candle niche was empty, but otherwise the room was disappointingly normal.
"Yes, yes, what?" The Matchmaker poked his head through the wooden doorway to the next room, and Nelan was struck once again by how pale the man looked, as if all natural colour had been bleached away. The Matchmaker looked Nelan up and down and sighed. "Oh, great. Another one." He squinted. "Are you still blue year?"
"Uh." Nelan nodded, but then he cleared his throat. He was an adult now, and stammering just wouldn't do. "Yes. Blue. Please. Thank you." What are you doing? he chided himself, he's going to think you're an idiot! Then again, from what he'd heard the Matchmaker thought everyone was an idiot.
"Right." The Matchmaker waved his hand at the other room. "Well, come along. I don't suppose you've bothered to spare any thought as to what kind of lighter you want." At Nelan's confused expression, he said very slowly, "Any idea what you want your match to look like?"
"Um. No?" Nelan hadn't known that one could choose. "I like birds?" he ventured, thinking of Upal's match, which had stylised wings on its sides and spit fire from a top that looked like an open beak. It was very impressive.
"Of course you do." The Matchmaker rolled his eyes – apparently adults could do this, too – and disappeared into the room. Nelan hurried after him, and belatedly remembered the bag in his pocket.
"Oh! Here," he said, fumbling a little as he handed over the sweets. "My father got them from Mon-Mon's," he added as the Matchmaker peered into the bag, face lighting up as he saw the treasures inside. Mon-Mon's was famous for its candy, and the prices accordingly high.
The Matchmaker hummed, set the bag aside, and turned to pick something from a low shelf. A set of small tools was laid out on a pockmarked bench, and the Matchmaker turned his back on Nelan as he reached for one. Nelan looked around as the Matchmaker worked. This room looked more like the workshop of a Matchmaker, he thought as he took in the strange metal parts on the shelves, the flasks of unknown liquid, the tools and tiny screws.
"Were you a Matchmaker where you came from?" he asked. Matchmaking looked like a complicated business, and he couldn't imagine anyone just taking over after watching for a few weeks.
"No," the Matchmaker said shortly. He picked up a brush and a small tin of paint and started to add little dabs of colour to Nelan's match. Nelan tried to see the design, but the Matchmaker's back was in the way.
"But you did something like this, right?" he asked. "Before your people were culled."
The Wraith had been gone for a few years, destroyed in a final battle with the Lanteans, but the shadow of their memory still hovered over every world that had ever heard of them. Nelan had listened in horrified fascination to the stories when he was a child, and the idea of someone coming to eat him still featured in most of his rare bad dreams.
"My people weren't culled." The Matchmaker scoffed and put the brush aside to pop a sweet into his mouth. Then he picked it up again. "I merely… lost them."
Nelan frowned. How could one lose his people? Had they been nomads, like the Travellers? He didn't want to appear brash, though, so he asked, "Didn't you look for them?"
It was only after the question had left his mouth that he realised it seemed rather brash as well.
The Matchmaker's shoulders stiffened. "Yes, I looked," he said in a clipped voice. "I looked until I couldn't look anymore, and then I gave up because surprisingly enough, this galaxy is a big place. Now, is your curiosity satisfied or would you like to ask a few more questions?"
"I'm sorry," Nelan said ruefully. His mother had been right when she'd scolded him for his inability to hold his tongue. "I didn't mean to pry."
The Matchmaker didn't reply. Nelan poked at a small grey device that sat on the edge of the bench and watched him. He hadn't meant to upset the Matchmaker. It had to be horrible, being all alone. "I could help you look," he offered. "I'll go to trade on Naresh in a three-day. I could -"
"Yes, by all means!" The Matchmaker dropped his tools and threw up his hands as he spun around to face Nelan. Nelan jerked back. "If you come across a dreadlocked behemoth in a leather duster on your very important trip to a backwater trading hub, do tell him that Rodney McKay is looking for him! I'll just go pack my things then, shall I?"
Nelan bit his tongue, but it still wouldn't be quiet. "What's a duster?"
"A coat!" the Matchmaker yelled, his face turning red. "I'm talking about a tall guy with long stringy hair and a beard who wears a long leather coat and doesn't go anywhere without his gun! He's got a juvenile sense of humour and a handshake that will break your fingers, and he…" His voice wavered. "He eats everything," he finished, blinking rapidly. All of a sudden, he looked utterly lost, and Nelan felt like he'd just kicked a birra off its branch.
"I'm sorry," he said again. "I didn't mean… I'm going to 'shut up' now." He curled his fingers around the half-familiar phrase the way he'd seen the Matchmaker do it. The Matchmaker blinked at him, then he swallowed.
"Yes, well." He cleared his throat and turned back to the bench. "See that you do."
Nelan kept his silence for the time it took the Matchmaker to finish his work. The paint was fixed with a clear lacquer, mysterious parts were added in mysterious places to produce a mysterious click, all of which the Matchmaker seemed to find satisfying. Finally, he turned around, and handed Nelan his new match.
It was a beautiful thing. As long as the span from the base of his thumb to the tip of his index finger and as wide as his two thumbs put together, it glittered in green and gold. Scales seemed to ripple along its body as Nelan tilted it into the light, a faint hint of painted claws at its bottom. Two dark blue eyes glared from above its open mouth, the lightly serrated edges of which held the promise of sharp teeth. Nelan pressed on the indentation in its body, and a twisting arc of ruby-coloured energy curled out of the match's mouth.
"What is that?" he asked in awe.
"It's called a dragon," the Matchmaker said. "A mythical creature that breathes fire. Try not to burn the house down." His voice wasn't near as gruff as his words, so Nelan dared to grin at him.
"Thank you! I've never seen one like this before. It's beautiful." It was beautiful, and it was his and everybody was going to envy him. This was the best day ever!
"Yes, yes," the Matchmaker said with a negligent wave of his hand, but he looked pleased. "Now shoo, I have some real work to do."
Nelan nodded and thanked him again and rushed out of the workshop, trying to guess how many times his mother would let him blow out and relight his name candle before she got fed up with him.
A blue candle and his own match. Now he only needed to succeed in his first real trade, and his parents might even let him move out.
He couldn't wait.
Naresh was very different from Lesst. Where Arisi was only one town among many, the Nareshim lived in a single tent city that spread out under a canopy of trees. Well-trodden footpaths criss-crossed between the tents, but few of them were broad enough for a tren, so Nelan had to walk. The air was cool and moist, the sun visible only as flecks dotting the forest floor. The Nareshim themselves weren't as dark-skinned as the Lessta, but not nearly as pale as the Matchmaker, and they brewed a strong honey wine that tasted of apples and rosin. Many came to trade on Naresh, with the Nareshim and with each other, and now Nelan was one of them.
He wasn't really nervous about it. The Nareshim and the Lessta had been friends for generations, each well-used to the other. The first thing Elnca, his trading partner for the afternoon, had him do when he entered her tent was light the candles that had been placed on the table and the polished cabinets. He laughed self-consciously, but was happy to do as she asked and have her admire his match. In return, he promised her to be her dance partner for the night, if only to keep her cousin away.
"I've been telling him no for sixteen years," she said, amusement colouring her narrow face as she tossed her braided hair over her shoulder, grey streaks shining in the candlelight. "He still won't leave me be."
"I can't imagine anyone would," Nelan said with a bow, and she laughed.
"You're a clever one. I'll have to be on my guard," she teased, and he grinned at her.
They struck a good deal, greenhouse flowers in turn for wood and honey wine for trens to be traded further. Arisi would make a good profit once the taxes had been paid.
"Did your Matchmaker give you anything to trade?"
Nelan shook his head. "He's busy preparing the second-summer fireworks. Maybe next time."
"Too bad." Elnca nodded at Nelan's match. "I like his trinkets."
"Maybe next time," he repeated, and they talked of other things. Nelan mentioned that he himself would be interested in a trinket or two, and Elnca winked at him as she told him where to find the smalltraders.
"More trinkets than anyone could possibly need," she said. "Something for any girl's taste."
Nelan felt his cheeks heat up, but he thanked her and promised to save her from her amorous cousin before he left the tent in search of the smalltraders' tables. Elnca had been right; there really was something for everyone. Nelan walked past the tables and booths holding cloth, ribbons and paint – Lita wasn't interested in that kind of stuff. Her great-uncle had taught her how to make matches, and the new Matchmaker sometimes let her watch him work. She liked technology, the kind of trinkets the Matchmaker made for trading if he had the time, so Nelan looked for something small he might bring home for her.
He was so focussed on the smalltraders' tables that when a man stepped out of the next booth, Nelan ran right into him.
"I'm so sorry," he stammered, looking up… and up, for the man was at least two heads taller than him. Nelan felt his mouth fall open as he stared.
A tall guy with long stringy hair and a beard who wears a long leather coat.
"Are you all right?" a woman asked, stepping from behind the man. She was beautiful, fine-boned and smaller even than Lita, with a friendly smile that made his heart flutter stupidly in his chest.
Nelan snapped his mouth shut.
"I… yes. Thank you." He turned to the man and bowed slightly. "Please accept my apologies. I didn't watch where I was going."
Should he say something, mention the Matchmaker? If these people were his friends, he might not be so alone anymore. But… no, this was simply too much of a coincidence. There had to be thousands of tall men in leather coats. Right?
"It's okay," the man said with a shrug. The woman smiled at Nelan again, then the two of them turned and walked away. Nelan watched them go, biting his lip, but then he shook his head. He'd just find something for Lita and go save Elnca from her cousin before he went home.
Elnca turned out to be a great dancer, full of energy and laughter as she dragged Nelan into another round of weaving between the fires.
"If I didn't know you already have a sweetheart, I'd be tempted to keep you," she called, and laughed again as he tripped over his feet. He felt his face warm all over again, glad that between the growing darkness and his colouring, few would even notice the blush.
It should have been fun, being no one's responsibility but his own and celebrating after a long, successful day. It was fun. And yet Nelan found he couldn't really enjoy himself, his thoughts drifting back to the Matchmaker, and the man he'd run into earlier that day.
There was no way the man had been the one the Matchmaker had been talking about. Nelan knew that. But… what if he was? And even if he wasn't, it would take so little to make sure, and at this point, Nelan was pretty certain that if he didn't at least ask, it would keep nagging at him forever.
He sighed and looked around. He'd seen the woman earlier beside one of the fires, but now he couldn't spot her anywhere. The man was nowhere in sight, either.
"Elnca!" Nelan shouted over the voices around him. She gave him a good-natured little wave from where she stood before one of the tents, talking to an earnest-looking young woman in an old-fashioned Amarinian dress. He jogged over to them, bowed briefly to the young woman, and turned to Elnca. "Elnca, I ran into a man earlier, tall, strange hair, leather coat –"
"Ronon Dex," the young woman said with a smile. At Elnca's raised eyebrow, she added, "His people and mine have been trading for three turns now."
"Do you know where I can find him?" Nelan asked.
"I believe he went back to the Circle," the woman said. Nelan cursed, turned to run after the man Dex, stopped to apologise for his rude words, and tore down the path toward the Circle of the Ancestors, throwing a thank-you over his shoulder.
The forest grew darker as he ran away from the fires behind him. Glowstones marked the way to ensure no one got lost, but it still felt like the trees were closing in around him, twigs snatching at his clothes as he brushed by them. Nelan found that he didn't much like the woods after dark – had something just moved in the underbrush? – but he ran on nevertheless. He was absolutely, irrationally, convinced that if he didn't find Dex right now and ask him if he knew the Matchmaker, the chance to do so would be lost for good. Never mind that the young woman would know how to reach him. Never mind that Elnca knew her. It had to be now, tonight, or the Matchmaker would never find his home again.
The Circle gleamed blue and wet before him, just beyond the trees, and as he followed the last turn of the path he saw that the woman was already walking up the steps, with Dex following close behind her.
"Wait," Nelan shouted, afraid that they wouldn't hear him, "wait!"
They stopped, turning around to look at him as he staggered to a halt in front of the steps leading up to the Circle, resting his hands on his trembling legs as he struggled to catch his breath. His throat ached and his ribs were on fire, and maybe he should stop taking the tren everywhere he went.
"Are you all right?" the woman asked him for the second time that day, and Nelan nodded and waved his hand to show that he was fine, honest, he just needed a moment to convince his body not to fall over.
The man pulled something out of his coat pocket, pushed it into his ear and said, "Something came up." Nelan realised that it had to be a farspeaker when the man paused for a moment before he added, "Nah, we're good. It's just a kid."
Nelan bristled, but then he realised that his newly acquired status as an adult wouldn't really matter to these people.
"I apologise for delaying you," he said with a small bow, still short of breath. "And I know that this won't make any sense to you, but I promised."
That was what it all came down to in the end. He'd promised, and even if the Matchmaker hadn't taken him seriously, Nelan had never broken a promise before. He wasn't going to start his adulthood by making new habits.
Well, he thought, remembering Lita's soft smiles, at least not this kind of habit.
He straightened, took another much-needed breath, and looked right at Dex. "Rodney McKay is looking for you."
He'd been expecting Dex to ask what the droughts he was talking about. Instead, the woman made a soft gasping sound and Dex stared at him as if Nelan had just grown a second head.
"Uh," he said warily, but before he could gather his words Dex was reaching for his farspeaker again.
"Sheppard," he said, his voice rough, "get your ass over here."
They took his father's wagon to the Matchmaker's house: Nelan, the man Dex, the woman Emmagan, and another man whose name was Sheppard. The wagon was an old model that jerked its way along the road, but the strangers didn't seem to mind the discomfort. It was late afternoon on Jesst, the sun turning the dust clouds behind them into sparkles in the air.
Nelan's mind was reeling. He really had found the Matchmaker's people, by mere coincidence, and he'd never again listen to Lita when she told him something was unlikely. The woman Emmagan had broken into the brightest smile when Nelan had described the Matchmaker, and Dex had made him show them his match, but the man Sheppard had been silent all the time. He still was, sitting in the back of the wagon with his lips pressed together, his skin almost as pale as the Matchmaker's.
"We're almost there," Nelan said as they passed the final row of greenhouses. The strangers had fallen quiet and he was nervous, his emotions a wild mix of elation because he had found the Matchmaker's friends, and strangely, guilt because he hadn't found them years before.
"Tell me, how did he come to live among you?" Emmagan asked, and Nelan was relieved to have a story to tell.
"He arrived five years ago, bleeding and with a bad fever. That's what Mother said. Upal's family cared for him, I think, and he went through the Circle a few times, but he always came back." He threw a glance at Sheppard. "Didn't find what he was looking for, I guess." Sheppard's expression darkened even further, and Nelan hurried to add, "Then the old Matchmaker died and he became the new one. He didn't go through the Circle after that. I think it was the year the Coalition said to catch the remaining Lanteans," he said pensively. "He didn't like that much. We didn't really see the point, either. I mean, the Lanteans did kill the Wraith."
He pretended not to notice as the strangers exchanged looks with each other. Nobody on Jesst cared where someone had come from, only who they were. The Matchmaker was a good man, and that was all they needed to know.
"Your people are very generous," Emmagan said quietly. Nelan just shrugged.
The Matchmaker's house stood exactly as it had a three-day before, windows and door wide open. Nelan stopped the wagon in front of it, his heart pounding with excitement as they all got out.
He couldn't wait to see the Matchmaker's face.
"I'll just –" he began, moving toward the string of bells, but Dex didn't wait for a polite announcement.
"McKay!" he hollered.
Something inside the house clattered, and then the Matchmaker appeared in the doorway, wide-eyed and open-mouthed. He had a smudge of oil on one cheek, Nelan noted giddily, and his shirt looked to be beyond help.
"Ronon," the Matchmaker said faintly. Nelan saw something move from the corner of his eye, but before he could turn to look Sheppard had already strode past him, hands reaching out to grasp the Matchmaker's face between them and pull him into a kiss so fierce it almost seemed like an attack. It was Nelan's turn to stare, open-mouthed, as the Matchmaker's hands flailed and finally clenched in the back of Sheppard's shirt.
Dex let out a laugh and threw his arms around both men at once while Emmagan embraced them from the other side, her smile wider than any Nelan had ever seen before.
"Rodney," she said, and kissed the Matchmaker's… McKay's cheek when Sheppard let him gasp for breath. "We are so very glad to have found you well."
McKay looked like someone had hit him over the head, his eyes glassy and blinking fast. "You're here," he said, dazed, "you're really –"
"Yeah," Sheppard said, and closed his arms around him like he never wanted to let go. "Yeah, buddy, we've got you."
Nelan watched them giddily, a small huddle of happy people, and when McKay caught sight of him over Sheppard's shoulder, his cheeks flushed and wet, Nelan beamed at him. McKay blinked, opened his mouth, closed it again. Nelan mouthed, "My pleasure," because he didn't need McKay's words of thanks to understand his gratitude. McKay closed his eyes, held tight by his friends and clearly basking in it, and Nelan turned away to study his father's wagon, the dusty road, the fire-painted house that would soon be empty.
If Lita was to be the new Matchmaker, maybe she'd let him move in with her, he thought, and smiled up at the cloudless sky.