They make it through the gate only because luck is on their side, as well as John’s skill as a pilot. John’s fairly certain that none of the Wraith actually saw them through the cloud of smoke from the grenade Lorne had thrown in ahead of them in order to screen them. The tension in the jumper is high for everyone except Rodney, it seems, as he’s sitting behind John — and doesn’t that feel strange to not have him as co-pilot — talking excitedly and pointing at everything he sees and in general behaving more like a three-year old than the brilliant scientist John loves.
Clearing his throat, he focuses on following Ronon’s directions and landing the jumper safely in a clearing that’s further from the shrine than John would have liked, considering the Wraith are here. The terrain is too hilly and there are too many trees to get any closer, however.
As much as it gals him, John allows Jeannie and Keller to help Rodney along, while Ronon takes point and he and Teyla cover the rear. John would give anything to be able to hold Rodney right now, but he has to keep him safe.
It takes them a good fifteen minutes to trek from the jumper to the waterfall behind which the shrine is supposed to be. Rodney has been pretty good at keeping quiet after Jeannie tells him how important it was, using the voice John has heard her use when speaking to her daughter Madison. John tries not to dwell on the look of anguish on Jeannie’s face at the time, but it’s difficult because he shares the same fear.
When they stop at the foot of the waterfall, however, Rodney exclaims in apparent delight and begins to move forward. Only John’s quick reflexes as he grabs the back of Rodney’s tac-vest prevent him from falling a couple of feet into the lake. Jeannie shoots a grateful look at John that quickly morphs into a mildly scolding one at Rodney as she guides him up the path after Ronon.
The closer they get to the waterfall, the more noise Rodney makes. Strange, almost guttural whimpers escape him as he clutches his head, shaking it. Every now and then John can hear Rodney mutter, “Don’t like this… don’t like this,” which makes John frown.
The entrance to the cave appears out of nowhere, it seems. It’s narrow enough they have to go in single file. They’ve only made it a few feet inside when Rodney doubles over, crying out in pain, his hands firmly clamped on his head. Keller and Jeannie are there in an instant to hold him up, but another step later and Rodney straightens, looking confused but fully… Rodney.
“What’s going on?” Rodney demands, turning from one to the next. “Jeannie? What-?”
“Oh, my God,” Jeannie whispers, shocked. “Rodney?”
John’s throat is dry as he watches Rodney. He’d known Rodney would be himself again and he had decided to tell him everything, but as he listens to Rodney’s objections to the situation, he starts to wonder if he even can put voice to his feelings. He can sort of see Rodney’s point of it being horrible to know you’ve been gone and to know that you’re back to normal, but oh hey, it’s only for twenty-four hours and then you die.
“Sorry, Rodney, but I thought it might be nice to say goodbye.” Jeannie’s voice is hovering somewhere between resolute and pleading.
Turning abruptly to John, Rodney points an accusing finger at him. “D’you have some kind of itinerary planned?”
Swallowing thickly, John casts his brain for a suitable answer and lands on the picnic they brought with them. “Well, actually, we’re gonna have a big feast first,” he manages, only just barely keeping his voice from betraying him.
Rodney huffs, reluctant amusement in his eyes. “Last supper, huh?”
John’s lips twitch into a smile in spite of himself. He’s missed bantering with Rodney more than he can say. “Well, it suits your Messiah complex,” he quips, earning a bark of laughter from Rodney and a snort from Ronon.
“True,” Rodney acknowledges.
Taking a deep breath, John moves closer to Rodney. If he’s ever going to tell him, it has to be now, he’s running out of time after all, and at least Rodney seems to have calmed down some. “Look, Rodn-” John starts, only to be interrupted by Keller’s quiet, “Huh, I’m reading some kind of radiation here.”
They all turn to Keller with questioning looks. “What kind of radiation?” John asks, barely beating Rodney to the punch.
“No idea, never seen anything like this before,” murmurs Keller, frowning at the device she’s holding.
Rodney huffs, taking the device from her and starts taking readings of his own, slowly walking around the column in the middle of the cave where the radiation seems to be centered. “Nothing I’ve ever seen, either,” he comments.
Keller hums thoughtfully as she grabs the LSD and focuses on its screen, but before John can ask what’s on her mind, she squares her shoulders and grabs Rodney by the arm. With a look of determination, she pulls him out to the mouth of the cave. A few feet from the entrance, Rodney cries out in pain again and drops to his knees. John rushes to him, hauling him back inside as he glares at Keller who’s staring at Rodney with a mixture of shock and satisfaction on her face.
“What the hell, Doc?” John demands.
Keller has the good grace to flush, considering the looks of consternation and fury directed at her from everyone. “It’s the radiation,” she explains, holding up the LSD. “Whatever it is, it’s causing the creature in Rodney’s brain to contract. As soon as he was out of reach, it expanded again. Here, look,” she says, showing them the screen. “It’s shrunk again. I think I can actually operate on it now it’s this small.”
Jeannie and John share a look. “Okay,” Jeannie starts. “but how? You said as soon as we leave, that thing’ll grow.”
Keller nods, taking a deep breath. “Here. We do it here. Except…”
“Except what, Doc?” Ronon asks, his arms folded as he gazes calmly at her.
“Well… I don’t have any of the tools necessary.”
After some discussion, plus a minor fit from Rodney about having to undergo surgery under these conditions, they finally settle on what is needed. John heads back to the Jumper to get the drill and the first aid kit. Ronon had offered, but John is desperate for a few minutes to himself. His head is swimming, his heart thudding in his chest at the thought of having to help Keller.
Inside Jumper One, John takes a few seconds to catch his breath. “I can’t tell him. Not now,” he murmurs, leaning heavily against the side. The sense of disappointment has John wondering whether it comes from the jumper, or from himself. Either way, he firmly pushes it aside and says with as much conviction as he can muster, “He’s going to make it. He has to.”
A flicker of hope — again, John is not sure if it’s from him or the jumper — is all the motivation John needs and he hurries to fulfil his task. With one final pat to the wall and a quiet, “He’ll be fine,” John closes the hatch and double-times it back to the cave, treasures in hand.
“You sure ’bout this, Sheppard?” Ronon asks quietly while Jeannie and Keller discuss what’ll happen.
John nods, wiping sweaty palms on his BDUs. “Yeah,” he rasps. “You’re quicker on the draw than I am, and it has to be either you or me holding McKay still. Teyla’s going to hold him down, so…”
Ronon nods, clasping John firmly on the shoulder.
“Ready?” Keller asks, looking up.
“No,” grumps Rodney.
Raising an eyebrow in question, Keller begins to prep the syringe.
“Look, this isn’t one of those PBS brain surgeries where my skull is wide open and we’re having a conversation…?”
Keller’s lips twitch in amusement. John has trouble fighting down a smile of his own. “I have enough anesthetic to put you out,” she reassures. “You’re not going to feel a thing.”
Frowning, Rodney grumbles, “Yeah, it’s probably a hammer.”
John huffs a laugh at that and for a brief second he meets Rodney’s eyes. Forcing a smile, John says quietly, “I’ll be right here, buddy. You’re gonna be fine.”
Something passes over Rodney’s face, but it’s gone too quickly for John to pin it down and before he can ask, Rodney is under.
John holds Rodney’s face between his hands, but he feels like he’s holding on to Rodney’s life instead. John’s been in many a battle over the course of his career, has seen his fair share of bloodshed and then some. He’s watched men die; held his best friend as he bled out. But watching Keller drill a hole in Rodney’s skull is a nightmare all its own. John barely manages to keep from losing his breakfast.
Jeannie, who’s sitting just off to his left, scanning the LSD, isn’t looking like she’s doing any better.
John tries to focus on his breathing, on holding still, but Jeannie’s sudden, “Wait,” right as Keller manages to breach Rodney’s skull has John’s heart plummeting. Keller and John both look up at Jeannie. “It’s moving,” she says, holding the LSD up for them to see.
Sure enough, the creature seems to be moving toward the front of Rodney’s head. Keller’s eyes widen. “It’s trying to get out. I might not need to-” She cuts off, immediately refocusing on the hole she’s drilling. “If I can just make it a little bigger,” she mumbles to herself.
Holding his breath, John watches the screen as the creature moves ever closer. “Doc,” John warns right as the first tendrils worm their way out of Rodney’s head. Keller scoots back and Ronon pulls out his gun, ready to fire.
As soon as it’s free, Keller grabs it with a pair of what looks like tongs and flings it away from them. Ronon doesn’t hesitate and shoots it – twice, for good measure.
Releasing a shaky breath, John glances up at Keller. “So now what, Doc?”
She smiles at him. “Now I stitch him up and we take him home.”