"What the hell is that?"

It's not like he needs to ask the question. Whitey's not stupid, or blind - not yet, anyway - and he knows a cat when he sees one. What he doesn't know is what it's doing in his office.

"It's a kitten," Keith says. He's holding it out towards Whitey like he wants Whitey to take the damn thing, which is ridiculous.

Probably.

When Whitey makes no move to take it, Keith sets the cat down on Whitey's desk, where it promptly sits on a stack of papers. Inconvenient, but at least it's well-behaved.

"Well, what the hell's it supposed to be for?"

"It's a kitten," Keith says again, as if that explains everything. "It's a pet. You keep it."

"I keep it?" Whitey repeats. "Look, I don't know what you think -"

"It's a stray," Keith says. "It's been hanging out near the garage."

"Well, why don't you just put it back there?"

"I can't just put it back," Keith says, and Whitey rolls his eyes. The cat's chewing on the paper, now, making a mess all over the floor.

"Why not?"

"It isn't even fully grown," Keith says, looking at Whitey like he's supposed to care. Which he doesn't. No matter how cute it might be. "It needs someone to look after it."

"Why don't you take care of it, then?"

"Because you need someone to look after you."

Whitey ought to smack him on the head for that, but somehow he ends up reaching out to stroke the cat instead. It sniffs at him warily, then turns its attention back to the paper, which is exactly what Whitey feels like doing.

"And how's a cat supposed to do that?"

"They're good companions."

"Yeah, good companions who've got God only knows how many diseases -"

"I took him to the vet already. Got all his shots, and a clean bill of health."

"It's a boy cat?"

Keith laughs. "Yeah, it's a boy cat."

"Well." He pauses. "Can't have a girl running around the boys' locker room."

"Nope, we wouldn't want that," Keith says, and Whitey would curse him for his insolence if he could be sure Keith wasn't just agreeing with him.

And the cat's just sitting there, quieter than most of the boys he coaches, so maybe it isn't so bad, after all.

"Were you after anything else while you're here? Want me to adopt an orphan? Maybe start a petting zoo for entertainment during half time?"

"Nope," Keith says. "That was it." Whitey's almost certain he's smiling when he leaves.

When he sits down, the cat jumps over to sit on his lap, and Whitey almost scratches it behind the ears before he catches himself.

How he's supposed to get any work done around here, he'll never know.

-

"Nathan! If you can't break away when you're being double teamed, pass the damn ball!"

Nathan passes to Tim, who shoots and misses, and Whitey rolls his eyes.

"Come on, move it! Watch -"

Lucas has the ball halfway down the court when he stops, suddenly, and the rest of the team follows suit. The ball drops to the floor, forgotten, as the boys all look towards the door, and Whitey glances over to see what's suddenly more important than practice.

"Damn it! Who left the door -"

"Is that a cat?" Lucas asks, and the few people in the gym who weren't already staring at it, turn around.

"Can we focus, please, gentlemen?"

"Whitey, there's a cat in the gym," Nathan says, as if everyone there can't see it for their own damn selves.

"Yes, Nathan, I'm aware of what a cat looks like," he says. "Now get back to practice."

"Oh my god, is it a stray?" one of the cheerleaders asks, rushing over.

"It's not a -"

"You poor thing," she coos, ignoring him. "Are you lost? You guys, look at it. It's so ... mangy, and scruffy."

"First of all," Whitey says, louder this time, "it's not an it, it's a he. And second of all, it's not a damn stray."

"Whitey," Lucas says, staring at him as if he's having some sort of epiphany. "Is this your cat?"

Everyone's eyes are on him, now. Except the cheerleaders, who are still looking at the cat.

"Whitey, you have a kitten?" Nathan echoes, and the rest of the team waits expectantly.

"It's not a kitten," Whitey says. "It's a cat. And it's not some stray I picked up off the street out of the kindness of my heart, if that's what you're thinking."

"Then what is it?" Lucas asks.

"None of your damn business, is what it is. Now, if you lot don't get back to playing basketball by the time I count to five, it'll be suicides until you puke."

"What about the cat?" Nathan asks, already moving. The boy may not be the brightest of the bunch, but at least he's not a complete idiot.

"Fine," Whitey says, after a beat. "You buys get to work, and I'll take it back to my office."

"No, that's okay," one of the cheerleaders says, and is she trying to pick it up? "We'll take care of it. Won't we, Scruffy?"

Whitey weighs up the wisdom of leaving a bunch of cheerleaders to look after the cat against leaving the team here to practice alone, and eventually gives in. "You just make sure he stays off the court," he warns. "And his name's not Scruffy."

"You named the cat?" Lucas asks.

Whitey grins at him humourlessly. "Congratulations, Scott. You just earned the team an extra fifteen minutes."

"Coach -" Tim protests, and Whitey glares at him.

"You want to shoot for half an hour?"

"We will if you tell us his name," Nathan says, and maybe Whitey judged him too soon.

"He doesn't have a name, and that's half an hour. Anyone else?"

He looks around, waiting, and the team stay mercifully silent.

"Good. Now get to it!"

Nobody bugs him about the cat after that, though there are a few fumbles and missed shots as the boys look over at where the cheerleaders are still playing with it. Every once in a while he hears one of them call the cat Scruffy, and he can't help thinking the name's probably going to stick.

The team's still there when the cheerleaders leave, gaining a little more focus after Whitey threatens them with a full hour of extra practice. That doesn't last, unfortunately, and it isn't long before they start getting sloppy.

When the cat starts playing with one of the extra balls over by the bleachers, practice nearly stops altogether, and some of the boys start smiling far too much for Whitey's liking.

"Look at how cute it is," one of them says, and Whitey doesn't turn around in time to see who it was.

"It isn't cute," he says. "It's playing basketball, which is what you lot are meant to be doing. Or did you forget?"

"He's pretty good," Nathan says, and Whitey glares at him until he looks away.

"Of course he's good. Natural, that one."

"A natural ... basketball playing kitten?" Lucas asks sceptically.

"Whatever he is," Whitey says, ignoring the jibe, "he's a damn sight better than my team right now."

"At basketball," Lucas adds, and there's an edge of laughter to his voice.

"Yes, at basketball. Right now, I'd bet my life savings on him against any one of you fools in free throws."

Nathan opens his mouth to speak, and Whitey cuts him off before he can.

"And yes, I'm serious, and yes, I will kick each and every one of your asses individually if you don't get back on the court and start playing basketball right now."

That seems to get them back on track for now, and Whitey's contemplating not making them stay late again tomorrow when somebody throws the ball wild. It bounces off the far wall, missing the cat by a few feet, and Whitey turns to see Tim, arms still outstretched, looking guilty.

"Smith!" he bellows, and under any other circumstances, he'd enjoy watching the boy's face turn white. "Bench. Now. And if you throw so much as a crumpled piece of paper within a hundred yards of that cat again, I'll have you doing push-ups until you can't see straight."

"Coach, that wasn't even anywhere near -"

"And don't think I won't bench you for the rest of the season, either!"

Tim sits, still pale, and Whitey turns to face the team.

"As for the rest of you, you'd better get your worthless, sorry asses out of here before I cancel the season altogether." He pauses. "And so help me, if any of you says another word about that cat -"

They're rushing towards the door before he can finish, and he looks over at Tim.

"Well? What the hell are you waiting for? Get out of here."

"You just said -"

"Out!"

As Tim jumps up to follow the others, Whitey crosses the gym to pick up the cat, stroking it absently in an attempt to comfort it.

He's going to kill Keith.