Baki stood over the hospital bed, watching Kankuro's face. He'd been standing for hours. He no longer knew how long. As an experienced jonin, he couldn't feel the strain and fatigue the same way others did. He'd been on forty-eight hour stakeouts before with no rest and no relief, solo missions that depended on his alertness.
He couldn't have left if he'd wanted to. Not while Kankuro's face was damp with sweat. Not while Kankuro was so pale and weak, paralyzed. Not while he could hear Kankuro's wheezing breaths.
With Chiyo unable to help, all he could do was wait for Tsunade to arrive. Godaime Hokage's arrival was a mere rumor, and yet he clung to it, because he had to. Tsunade was the only person more skilled than Chiyo in the healing arts. Tsunade's power to heal was greater than Sasori's power to destroy. It had to be. For Kankuro's sake.
Over the last three years, Kankuro had become dear to him.
Kankuro's breathing changed, and his eyes flickered open. He took in the sight of his teacher standing over his bed with a bleary, unfocused gaze.
Baki knelt immediately and took Kankuro's hand, leaning in to catch Kankuro's faint words.
"Baki," Kankuro whispered. Whispering was all he could do with his muscles paralyzed. He couldn't breathe deeply enough to get any air. "What are you doing here? Go home. You're tired."
Baki shook his head. Instead of answering, he reached out and pulled over the portable oxygen the med nins left. Kankuro struggled in his sleep with it, apparently disturbed by the feeling of the tubes in his nose, but while awake, Kankuro could stand it. He arranged the tubes, fitting them to Kankuro before he turned on the oxygen machine.
Kankuro breathed in gasps and regained a little bit of his color at the increase in oxygen.
"If I leave, you're going to suffocate before help arrives," Baki said. "I need to be here to wake you up and give you oxygen."
"The med nins can do that," Kankuro wheezed. "There's no reason for you to be here –"
"Hospitals don't bother me like they bother you," Baki said. "I'm fine."
Kankuro looked at him uncertainly. "If you're sure…"
Baki took Kankuro's hand again and squeezed it. "I'm sure." I would rather die than leave you here.
Kankuro closed his eyes and focused on breathing. After a few moments, he said, "Ever since Dad died you've been looking out for me. Gaara and Temari too, but especially me. I just want you to know that I'm grateful. I noticed, and I appreciate it."
Baki squeezed Kankuro's hand tightly, even though he knew Kankuro couldn't squeeze back, being mostly paralyzed. "Don't. You don't have to make any deathbed declarations. This isn't your deathbed, and you're not going to die. Not as long as I'm around."
Kankuro smiled. "I appreciate that. But there's nothing you can do. I'm…I'm finished unless that lady from Konoha gets here. I…miscalculated. That's all there is to it. Isn't that how people die? How shinobi die?"
"No!" Baki hastily lowered his voice. "No. It's not your fault. You're not going to die, and being poisoned isn't your fault."
"You told me to wait," Kankuro pointed out in a scratchy whisper.
"I was too slow." Baki squeezed his hand. "I was too slow, and that's why you got poisoned. If I had been right behind you, none of this would have ever happened. I'm to blame."
Kankuro let out a sigh of air that was supposed to be a laugh. "You're always blaming yourself, you know that? Even when Dad died. You said you should have known, should have guessed it wasn't him somehow, and you never should have obeyed Kabuto's orders…but think. How could you know? The whole point was that no one knew. And discovering Dad's body…wasn't that the best you could do? You did what the Council said couldn't be done. You found Dad and you brought him back. For a proper funeral. Don't think I'm not grateful for that. I would have had nightmares for the rest of my life of Dad being out in the desert, waiting for someone to find him."
"You had nightmares enough as it is," Baki said.
A smile came and went on Kankuro's lips. "True. But you stuck by me through that, too."
"How could I not?" Baki asked. "You are my student."
"Not all teachers are as nice as you." Kankuro breathed as deeply as he could and opened his eyes. "You're going to blame yourself if I die, aren't you?"
Baki didn't know how to respond to that. He imagined Kankuro struggling for last breaths, Temari's grieved screams, another funeral solemnly conducted in the main temple of Suna, just like Yondaime's. Burying another member of the family he had known since Yondaime dated Karura.
Last, he imagined how he would feel.
"Yes," Baki whispered. It hurt to admit just how much he would blame himself.
Kankuro frowned at him. "Then I can't die. No way. I'm not putting you through that. Gaara blamed himself for Dad's death, for wishing it all of these years. I can't let you go through that. I saw what it did to Gaara, before I convinced him you can't kill a person with hate. They may have written folktales about that, but those are just stories."
"Save your breath," Baki pleaded quietly.
Kankuro closed his eyes and focused on breathing again, shivering. He choked out as fierce whisper. "Even if it's impossible, I'm going to survive for you, so you don't hate yourself."
Baki swallowed. "Whatever gets you through."
"Heh." Kankuro gave him a weak smile. "You'd rather I focus on myself, yeah? Be selfish? 'I don't want to die' and all that crap?"
Baki nodded and smiled sadly. "Yeah."
"I didn't think I was gonna live this long," Kankuro said. "Not with Gaara in the house. I was sure I was gonna die before I reached the age of twenty."
Baki was horrified.
Kankuro took a few gasping breaths. "Well, there's a change in plans. I can't bring you down with me."
Baki looked into his eyes. You're the most selfless man I've ever known. The words wouldn't come. Instead, he said, "You're going to be alright."
Kankuro closed his eyes and nodded.
Baki let him rest.