Title: The Way of the Cat
Characters/Pairings: Midorima, Takao, and miscellaneous Shuutoku
Summary: The only way Midorima can explain it to himself is that it must be a sort of feline Stockholm syndrome.
Notes: AU: catfic. Crack with a fairy-tale core. A bit of not-very-explicit smut. 15187 words. Written for half_sleeping, who was the one who gave me the Midorima/Takao and cats prompt in the first place.

The Way of the Cat

Shortly after the close of the Winter Cup, just before their senpai turned in their club resignations and buckled down to study for exams, Takao Kazunari turned into a cat. Everyone took it quite calmly—everyone, that is, except for Midorima Shintarou.

"He turned into a cat?" Shintarou sputtered, staring at Ootsubo-san in patent disbelief and keeping a careful eye on the small cat currently curled in the crook of Ootsubo-san's arm. It was striped, black and grey, and some trick of its markings made it seem as though it was smirking at him. "You have got to be joking."

Ootsubo-san shrugged. "Why should I joke?" he asked. "Hasn't this ever happened to you before?"

Hadn't this ever happened to him before? Shintarou sputtered some more over his captain's apparent break with sanity. "Of course it hasn't! Don't be ridiculous!"

"Oh, well." Ootsubo-san gave him another shrug, this one vague. "Well, now it has. Hang in there. In the meantime, here." He held the cat out; it dangled limply from his grip, forelegs sticking straight out and hindquarters stretched to their fullest limit. It blinked at Shintarou, lazy. "You had better be the one to look after him."

Shintarou couldn't contain the surge of horror that made sweat break out on his spine, cold and prickly. "Me?" he said. "Why me?" Leaving aside all of Ootsubo-san's claims that this was Takao, why should he have to be the one to look after it?

Ootsubo-san screwed up his face, apparently pondering what answer to make to that. "Because I said so." He smiled then, faintly. "I could tell you to think of it as returning the favor, but you would argue with that. So." Ootsubo-san pressed the cat against Shintarou's chest; he had to swallow a sound when he felt the thing's claws hook into his shirt. "This is my last order as your captain. Please take good care of Takao during his time of need." And Shintarou had to take the cat or risk its clawing its way down his chest when Ootsubo-san released it.

"This isn't Takao!" Shintarou protested as the cat immediately curled itself into his arm and swished its tail back and forth. "You can't be serious—"

But Ootsubo-san was very serious and merely waved over his shoulder as he walked away. "We're all counting on you!" he called as he went.

"This is crazy," Shintarou said, helplessly, staring down at the cat. It blinked back. "You're not Takao."

The cat yawned, displaying black lips and white teeth and blasting him with a wave of cat-breath, and began to knead its paws against his chest.

Shintarou did not like cats. They were small, evil-minded bastards whom evolution had honed into compact killing machines. They regularly bathed themselves with their own saliva, were equipped with razor-sharp claws and teeth, could not be trusted, and had somehow conned the greater part of the world's population into believing that they were cute and cuddly.

Shintarou knew better. He was on to their malicious ways, and would not be tricked into viewing cats as anything but the vicious little predators that they were.

Ootsubo-san, of course, seemed not to understand any of this logic when Shintarou chased after him and explained it to him. Nothing Shintarou said or did could persuade him to rescind the order to take care of the little beast. When he tried to get their coach to intervene, Nakatani-kantoku just gave him a long, tired look. "No, if Ootsubo-kun told you to do it, then you do it," he said, which was no help at all, and no one else on the team would even consider disobeying that.

In his desperation, Shintarou had even tried to appeal to the internal logic of their collective insanity. "But if this is, hypothetically speaking, Takao, then shouldn't his family be the ones looking after him until he recovers?" He hated himself a little for even saying it, but needs must when the times were desperate.

He might have saved his breath; the only thing it got him was a small, twinkling woman with Takao's eyes and smile who showed up towards the end of practice, but not to take the cat off his hands. "Here you go!" she said, handing off a pair of bags. One contained tins of cat food and something that jingled, along with various implements Shintarou thought might have been toys. The other contained a litter tray, a scoop, and a bag of litter. "These should see you through until Kazu-chan feels more like himself again, but if they don't, just let me know!"

And that had apparently been that.

Shintarou wanted nothing less than he wanted to take the cat home, but when he tried to "forget" the cat on his way out of the gym, it yowled sadly and his senpai wouldn't let him get away with it. "Hey, hey," Tomita-senpai, one of the second-years, called. "Wait up for Takao! Remember, his legs are even shorter now!" And he very helpfully picked the cat up and loped over to Shintarou with it. "Try to be a little more considerate."

Shintarou glared at his senpai and the cat, which could not actually grin but looked as though it were grinning nonetheless. "That isn't Takao."

Tomita-senpai gave him a patient look. "If you say so." Shintarou was very familiar with that tone: people tended to use it a lot around him, humoring him. "Just take him, will you?"

So Shintarou had to take the cat, which immediately set about burrowing its way inside his jacket by using its paw to drag the zipper down and immediately swarming through that gap while Shintarou stood frozen in disbelief. It curled itself against his chest and began to purr.

Tomita-senpai sighed. "I wish I had a camera."

"I hate all of you," Shintarou said, addressing himself most particularly to the lump of feline inside his jacket. It just butted its head against his chest and purred louder.

Shintarou's last desperate hope for sanity was his own parents, whom he expected would object to the presence of an uninvited cat in their home. However, he was destined to be disappointed in that, too. When he'd finally trudged through the front door, the house was quiet and empty. There was a note for him in the kitchen and some money to provide for him while his parents were—Shintarou squinted at the scrawl and gave up trying to make out his father's handwriting as an exercise in frustration—dealing with business concerns overseas somewhere.

He pitched the day's lucky alarm clock into the trash—clearly it was useless—and realized then that the cat had hooked its paw through the zipper of his gym bag (Shintarou had flatly refused to go out in public looking as though he were pregnant) and dragged it open far enough to slip free. It crouched in the middle of the living room floor now, still but for the twitching tip of its tail, and its ears were pricked forward as it studied its new circumstances.

"Oh, no," Shintarou said, making a grab for it.

The cat wanted nothing to do with being grabbed. It darted out of his hands with a disdainful flirt of its tail and then led Shintarou on a merry chase around the house. It rocketed around the living room and kitchen and bounced off the closed door of his father's study, running full-tilt and always just out of Shintarou's reach. Then it found the stairs and bounded up them, racing down the hall upstairs and into the first open door it came to. It the door to Shintarou's bedroom, fortunately, where he supposed he was going to have to keep the little beast for the duration of this stupid prank.

Shintarou slammed the door shut after it and ignored the startled, plaintive cry that emerged faintly from the other side. "This is ridiculous," he said, a little bit breathless from the chase, and stomped back downstairs to fix himself something to eat and try to figure out what he should do next.

Eating didn't bring him any clarity, though it did give him the space to calm down and regain a measure of self-control. So. He'd been given the care of a cat for some indeterminate period of time. Fine. He could deal with that, unpleasant as he found cats. His teammates were either crazy or involved in the largest prank Shintarou had ever heard of. That was... less fine, but he supposed it didn't matter as long as they either recovered or ended it before the playoff season began.

He could deal with this. He didn't want to, particularly, but one had to deal with the fate one was dealt.

Thus resolved, Shintarou washed the dinner dishes and took the bags of cat supplies from Takao's mother upstairs to see what sort of destruction the unattended cat had wrought on his bedroom. He opened the door carefully, prepared to block any attempt at escape, and found that the caution was unnecessary. The cat was sitting in the middle of his pillow, all its paws tucked under it and its tail curled around it, and it merely blinked once as Shintarou edged his way into the room.

Shintarou was willing to admit one thing about the cat: Takao had certainly found an animal whose expression did mimic his particular expression of perpetual amusement fairly accurately.

The cat stayed where it was while Shintarou unpacked the bags of cat supplies. He hesitated over the litter tray, but set it up in the corner. Better to keep it scooped and the cat confined to his room than to give it free run of the house to do as it liked. There was also a food dish and a water bowl in the other bag; the tins of cat food suggested that one tin would feed a three-kilo cat. Shintarou eyed the label and the cat—it was compact enough, so perhaps that was enough food?—and dished up the food. Ugh, what a smell.

The cat had no such objections and all but teleported from the bed to where Shintarou stood at his desk. It wreathed itself around his ankles, raising an unholy din as it cried, until Shintarou stooped to place the dish on the floor. Then it attacked the dish instead, almost as soon as it was within reach, and took no apparent notice of Shintarou's departure to fill the water bowl or his return.

The rest of the supplies seemed to consist of toys—a ball that jingled, a pair of mice, a wand that had a tuft of feathers on one end, and several small, glittering pompoms. There was nothing that looked like a bed, so Shintarou went and found a clean towel for the creature to sleep on.

By the time he'd returned with that, the cat had cleaned its plate. When Shintarou dropped the towel in the other corner of his room, the cat began to twine itself around his ankles, crying piteously and even going so far as to raise itself up on its hind paws and pat at his knee while it gazed at him beseechingly.

"What do you want?" Shintarou asked, bewildered by this display. He immediately hated himself for addressing the cat as though it could understand him.

The cat cried again, long and plaintive, the most noise it had made yet—was it still hungry? But surely it couldn't need more than one can of food? He'd held it and it surely couldn't weigh much more than three kilograms.

"This is crazy," Shintarou told himself and the cat before he opened another can of cat food. He gave the cat half of that and took the other half downstairs to the refrigerator. The cat could have it for breakfast, or something.

The cat cried some more when it reached the end of its second helping, but in a desultory sort of way. When Shintarou resolutely ignored it, it left off crying and began to slink around the room instead, exploring the corners and wriggling under the bed, a small black-and-grey shadow prowling through Shintarou's peripheral vision. He tried to ignore it and focus on his studying instead, but it wasn't easy. For all that people talked about the silence of cats, this one was noisy. It rustled through the things under the bed and rattled the closet doors until it created a gap large enough to squeeze through. Shintarou shuddered to think what it might do in there, but when he checked, it was merely sniffing the boxes of old lucky items stored there. It glanced at Shintarou as he stared down at it and picked its way past him with a lazy wave of its tail, and hopped up onto the desk.

"No." Shintarou picked it up and dropped it on the floor. The cat gave him a reproachful look and immediately jumped back up. "No." He removed it from the desk again.

The cat gave him a long look and hopped back up. They repeated the performance several times, Shintarou growing progressively more exasperated and the cat apparently convinced that this was an excellent game, before Shintarou finally gave up. "Fine," he said. He dropped himself back into his chair. "Don't blame me when you're the one who ends up bored."

Apparently insanity was contagious. He grimaced and got back to work.

The cat stayed where it had perched itself, curling its tail around its paws and watching him from behind slitted eyes. Shintarou had no idea what it found so fascinating, but it watched as he pored over his notes and completed the stacks of revision homework dutifully. Shintarou had to wonder whether Takao, wherever he was, was bothering with his own studying. If he wasn't, it would surely hurt him when the exams rolled around. "That's Takao's problem," Shintarou told himself, because it wasn't any concern of his.

The cat trilled a reply; Shintarou glanced at it, but shook his head. It was just responding to the sound of his voice.

The cat didn't bother him other than that, not until Shintarou slid his fingers under his glasses to rub the grit from his eyes. While he was preoccupied with that, the cat stood and stretched, arching its back and yawning before picking its way across his desk. It flopped down right in the middle of all his papers and books, stretching out to its full striped length, and yawned again (Shintarou couldn't help feeling that it was a pointed gesture).

"What are you—no." Shintarou lifted it off his desk, careful of its claws even though it went boneless the moment he slid his fingers underneath it, and dropped it on the floor again. "No," he said when it made to jump up again. Then he decided that he was in no mood to deal with the cat again and began packing up his notes for the evening. His homework was done, it had been a very trying sort of day, and he had earned the right to take a long bath before bed, damn it.

The cat complained about being left shut inside his room, but Shintarou ignored it. "You bathe in your own spit," he told it, exasperated, and went to enjoy the luxury of a long, hot soak.

There was a strange moment when he came back from his bath and needed to change into his pajamas, but—no, it was just a cat, not Takao turned into a cat, and besides, he and Takao had shared a locker room for almost a year now. Shintarou forced himself to ignore the cat as he changed—it wasn't smirking at him, that was just its markings making it look as though it were smirking—and then had to evict it from his bed.

"You have a bed," he told it when it tried to jump back in. He even pointed at the towel in the corner to illustrate his point.

The cat stared at him with uncomprehending eyes.

Shintarou pinched the bridge of his nose. "What am I even doing? You're a cat." He gave up trying to reason with it, kicked it out of bed again, turned the lamp out, kicked the cat out of bed, curled onto his side, kicked the cat out of bed, punched his pillow into shape, kicked the cat out of bed, and began to drift off to sleep, too comfortable to move when he felt the slight jostle as the cat jumped back up onto the bed. He fell asleep resolving to sort things out by acquiring a proper cat bed in the morning, with a warm weight draped across his ankles.

Shintarou woke a few minutes before his alarm, which was not unusual for him, and spent the first few sleep seconds of waking up confused by the rumbling sound next to his ear. When he finally managed to open his eyes and look, he realized that he was face-to-face with the cat, which was curled up next to his head, chin on its paws, and was watching him and purring loudly.

Shintarou made a noise that was not half as dignified as he might have wished it to have been and recoiled a little while his short-term memory scrambled to remind him why there was a cat on his pillow: Takao, cat, prank, right. He flailed a hand free of his blankets and rubbed some of the sleep from his eyes, permitting himself a groan at how ridiculous that was in the clear light of morning. "People don't turn into animals."

The cat purred louder, flopped onto its side, and began—ugh, what was it doing? Shintarou recoiled from it and ran his fingers through his hair—urgh, cat spit. "That is disgusting," he told the cat.

It looked away from him and began licking its shoulder instead.

Shintarou made a face and got out of bed, since there was no delaying the inevitable.

The cat immediately laid claim to the hollow in the bedclothes and spread itself out while Shintarou left the room to attend to his morning ablutions. It had twisted itself into a wholly improbable knot by the time he returned, paws in the air and belly exposed. Shintarou paid no mind to it and listened to the Oha-Asa broadcast instead as he dressed himself, paying particular attention to the horoscope for Cancers—oh. Nothing exceptionable for the day, apparently, although hearing that did make him question, briefly, the overall dependability of the Oha-Asa horoscope.

The day's lucky item was a particular cat cellphone charm—of course—and was a repeated item from several months ago. Shintarou retrieved it from the appropriate box in his closet and, thus armed, turned to face the morning's first challenge.

He flapped a hand at the cat. "Shoo," he told it. "Go on, shoo."

The cat opened its eyes a bit and yawned at him and would not shoo, not even when Shintarou picked up the blankets and flapped them at the cat. There was nothing for it but to pick the blasted thing up and dump it on the floor himself so he could make his bed—a process greatly complicated by the way the cat wanted to participate by continuing to jump up onto the bed every time Shintarou attempted to straighten the sheets.

If he hadn't known better, he would have sworn that the little monster was laughing at him.

The bed was not the tidiest he'd ever left it, but he didn't suppose it made any sense to do too good a job—the cat was certain to rumple it again the moment he was gone for the day. Or so Shintarou assumed, right until he opened the door to go downstairs and the cat zoomed through the opening like a tiny, furry racecar. Shintarou groaned in dismay and followed after it, fearing another wild chase around the house—one he didn't have time for if he wanted to eat breakfast before leaving for school.

Then he remembered the half-can of cat food in the refrigerator.

The cat didn't seem to be inclined to any kind of destruction—it seemed to be running laps around the ground floor for no good reason insofar as Shintarou could tell—and it came skidding into the kitchen when he retrieved the food from the refrigerator and dished it up. Its eyes were bright, the pupils dilated, and it all but pounced on the dish when Shintarou set it down.

This seemed like as good a chance to recapture it as any. He reached for it—

And froze when the cat growled at him in between bites.

"...fine," Shintarou said, leaving it in peace while he prepared his own breakfast instead. Maybe he could leave it unconfined for the day? It seemed reasonably well behaved and had made use of its litter tray like a civilized creature—ugh—so... perhaps it wouldn't be a disaster.

The cat had other ideas. By the time Shintarou finished eating and had cleaned up the dishes, the cat had left the kitchen and disappeared to the heavens only knew where. Shintarou assumed that that was that, that the cat was doing whatever it was cats did with themselves all day—if he hadn't noticed the very tip of a black and grey tail hanging out of his bag.

"What?" he said blankly, unzipping the bag to find that, yes, the cat was inside. It looked up at him, apparently perfectly comfortable where it had contorted itself to fit in amid his books and papers, and meowed inquisitively. "What are you doing? Cats don't go to school." Oh, no, he was talking to it like it could understand him; that was a terrible sign.

Shintarou took hold of himself and steeled himself to reach in and remove the cat—it growled at him again. He froze with his hand halfway into the bag—it was just a cat, it wasn't that big, it couldn't do that much damage, surely...?

Except that cats were evil little predators and he was very familiar with how much damage an angry cat could do.

"...fine," Shintarou said. "If Seirin can have a team dog, we can have a team cat." Besides, maybe one night was enough for the joke and he could get rid of the little monster once everyone had had a good laugh.

The cat yawned at him and curled itself into a ball, going to sleep just like that.

It wasn't as though Takao was unpopular in his ordinary form, far from it. He was naturally gregarious and could get along with nearly anyone—Shintarou knew that he himself was the primary piece of evidence for that fact.

The cat purported to be Takao was vastly more popular than human Takao could ever have dreamed of being, but Shintarou was too caught up in his own private horror to really appreciate that fact. He'd frankly expected that showing up at Shuutoku's school gates with a cat riding in his bag, its chin resting on the zipper so it could watch the world go by, would likely earn him even more stares than usual (even now, his schoolmates had barely accustomed themselves to the lucky items). He had not expected that people would take the cat's presence for granted. Or call greetings to it the way they normally called greetings to Takao. Or that, upon release from its confinement, the cat would casually accept pettings—ear-rubs and head-skritches—from all the female members of Class 1-A, who had clustered around it to coo.

Shintarou washed his hands of the lot of them, especially after Inamura-chan picked the cat up and the lot of them simultaneously shrieked and sighed over the way it immediately snuggled into her—chest area—and began kneading. "Takao-kun, you naughty boy!" Inamura-chan cried, laughing.

Shintarou ground his teeth over the apparent insanity of the world around him.

At least they all dispersed when classes began, though the fact that the teachers counted Takao as present made Shintarou want to cry just a little. Takao was not present, and the cat presently lying curled on his desk in clear contravention of all the laws of logic, not to mention several guidelines in the student handbook, should have made that clear.

Shintarou wanted to assume that the whole thing was some elaborate prank orchestrated by Takao and enabled by the rest of the basketball club. He could imagine Takao gathering them together, grinning, and saying, "So while I'm out of town visiting my grandparents, let's tell Shin-chan that I turned into a cat and see what he does." He didn't know whether Takao had grandparents that he was visiting, but he was intimately familiar with Takao's regrettable sense of humor and even more regrettable powers of persuasion, and—it wasn't as though Shintarou didn't know that there was something about his personality that made him an attractive target for practical jokers. He'd thought better of Takao, of course, but here they were.

The only problem with the practical joke theory was that while Shintarou could believe that Takao might have arranged it with the basketball team, he had a much more difficult time believing that he could have involved all their classmates, and what was more, their teachers into the joke, especially with exams looming on the horizon. It just didn't make sense that even someone as persuasive as Takao could have contrived a conspiracy on that scale. Not for a mere practical joke.

The only other possible explanation was that it was some kind of hallucination on a broad scale. Takao had gone out of town for reasons that Shintarou did not know, and for some reason, everyone but Shintarou had lost their minds over that fact.

The part that worried Shintarou most was that nobody else seemed to have any problem at all believing that a high-school student had turned into a small grey mackerel tabby.

Shintarou did his utmost to ignore both the cat and the insanity of his classmates when they clustered around it during lunchtime, and ate in grim silence as his classmates offered the cat tidbits from their own meals. Somewhere, wherever he was, Takao was surely laughing. Or would be as soon as he'd had a chance to hear how thoroughly everyone was playing their parts.

For his part, he was quite ready to see it at an end. If he had to watch the damn cat cozy up to any more of the young ladies in the class while wearing that damn feline smirk, he was not going to be held accountable for his actions. Surely, surely Takao would call an end to this game soon, wouldn't he?

Evidently not. The cat responded readily enough to the general end-of-day exodus from the classroom by allowing Inoue—also in the basketball club—to carry it to the gym. Nakatani-kantoku merely looked at it when it assumed a seat on the bench next to him and went about the business of directing their off-season conditioning. Shintarou ran his sprints and drills, grimly determined to ignore the inquiries after Takao's health and welfare—not that most of the club had the breath to spare for such things, thankfully. Nakatani-kantoku did tend to take idle chatter as a sign that they could be working harder.

Besides. Any attempt he made to point out that the cat was not Takao was only met with rolled eyes and good-natured variations on If you say so.

"Don't you think this has gone on long enough?" Shintarou asked when Nakatani-kantoku called an end to practice for the evening and evicted them all from the gym (there would be no extra training with exams looming). The cat was doing its level best to burrow inside Shintarou's jacket again. "Really. I think the joke is starting to wear thin."

Nakatani-kantoku gave him a long look. "These things take their own time. Go home, Midorima-kun."

So Shintarou went, resisting the urge to mutter complaints every step of the way. It wasn't like there was anyone to hear them but the cat, anyway, and it was a cat. What little brainpower it had was reserved for hunting and killing things and insinuating itself into the good graces of those without the common sense to see through its wiles.

With an emphasis, this evening, on the hunting and killing. The cat gulped its dinner down with as much haste as it had the evening before, but instead of hopping onto the desk to do—whatever the previous evening's staring had been—it began to investigate the bags of cat supplies instead.

"You've had plenty to eat today," Shintarou told it, filled with disapproval for its gluttony, as the cat pawed at the bag of food and toys.

The cat, not surprisingly, ignored him. It succeeded in dragging the sack over and immediately burrowed into it. It emerged after a moment, dragging the feather wand by its ridiculous pink and purple tuft of feathers.

"Absolutely not," Shintarou told it when it dropped the wand at his feet. "What do you think you are, a dog?" He was doing it again, speaking to the cat as though it was cognizant of what the words even meant. It couldn't even understand a simple no. He made a face at himself and waved a hand at the cat. "Go away, I'm studying."

The cat gave no indication that it understood that, either, and stared at him expectantly. Shintarou forced himself to ignore it and bent his head over his English homework.

Eventually the cat gave up or decided it wasn't worth it and returned to the bag. The next thing Shintarou knew, it had found one of the sparkly pompoms and was batting it around the floor, knocking it into the air and then pouncing on it with splayed paws and lashing tail, as though it were actually some kind of small, defenseless animal.

"That is barbaric," Shintarou told it.

The cat, which was slinking across the floor, ears laid back as it stalked its prey, ignored him. It paused, absolutely still, before twitching its hindquarters and leaping on the pompom.

"Absolutely barbaric," Shintarou muttered again. "It only looks cute because there's no blood."

The cat rolled onto its back, pompom in its mouth, and trilled something that reeked of self-satisfaction to Shintarou's ears.

"No," he told it when it attempted to follow him into the bath later. "What is wrong with you, cats hate water. Why are you defective?" He shut the door in its face, but that only meant he spent his bath listening to the racket from down the hall as it cried and rattled his bedroom door by poking its paws through the gap at the bottom.

Not only had they found a cat that looked like Takao, they'd found one that could be just as irritating as him, too. It figured.

It was in hopes of mitigating at least some of that annoying behavior that Shintarou retrieved a spare pillow from the linen closet and a second towel and arranged these into what he sincerely hoped would make an attractive nest for the cat. The cat sat on his bed and watched him through slitted eyes, its tail twitching at the very tip. "There," Shintarou said, patting the bed he'd made for it. "Your very own bed, all for you. Doesn't this look nice?" (He was talking to a cat, for pity's sake, what was the world coming to?)

He didn't think the cat seemed impressed, but then—a brain the size of a ping-pong ball. How could it be impressed?

This time the cat did not growl as he picked it up. It merely went limp in his hands, dangling like a furry rag as Shintarou transferred it from his bed to the arrangement in the corner. It even laid itself down when Shintarou deposited it there, which seemed like a promising sign. Shintarou climbed into his own bed, took off his glasses, and turned out the light.

He was just drifting off to sleep when the mattress shook gently and four tiny, impossibly heavy feet picked their way up the length of his leg and hip and ribs. A warm weight draped itself against his shoulders, and Shintarou fell asleep as he had woken up: to the sound of the cat's purr rumbling in his ear.

The next morning, the cat was draped across Shintarou's chest, impossibly dense for such a small creature and just close enough that Shintarou was able to bring it into focus without his glasses. When he groaned, the cat blinked its eyes open and flicked its ears and immediately began to purr.

Shintarou grimaced at it. "Stop that."

The cat only purred louder and began to knead its paws against his shoulder, its claws the barest pinpricks through his pajamas.

"Stop that," Shintarou told it again, not that it did any good until he shoved the cat off him. The cat meowed a protest that he ignored. "You'll cozy up to anyone who's warm." Argh. He had to stop talking to it. That was the path of madness. He had to stop anthropomorphizing its responses, too. There was no reason to suppose that the cat had actually been offended by that, even though the way it flicked its ears and began grooming its shoulder looked distinctly irritated.

This morning's lucky item was a laser pointer, easy enough to pluck out of his desk drawer and drop in his pocket. The day's horoscope promised unexpected pleasures for Cancers and reminded Scorpios to be patient in their endeavors. Not that Shintarou really cared what the daily fortune for Scorpios was, precisely, but it sometimes made preparing for the day's eventualities simpler if he knew what was in store for Takao as well.

Takao remained absent, however, though their teachers continued to treat the cat as his proxy, as did their classmates. It was ridiculous, but there was no point in saying so even though he had no intention of succumbing to this prank. Takao liked to complain that he was stubborn? Let him just see how stubborn Midorima Shintarou could be.

It wasn't until practice that anything worth noting happened, and that came towards the end of the evening when Tomita-senpai called, "Hey, Midorima, what was the lucky item today?"

Shintarou regarded the second-years with a certain amount of ingrained wariness. "A laser pointer." He did not ask why Tomita-senpai wanted to know. Sometimes it was better not to.

Tomita-senpai immediately grinned. "That's what I thought." When someone else hooted, he shrugged. "What? My sister likes Oha-Asa, too. I can't help it." He grinned again. "Well, have you tried it yet?"

Shintarou stared at him. "What?"

"The laser pointer." Tomita-senpai jerked his head at the bench, where the cat was sitting and looking bored as only a cat could look bored. "And Takao." When Shintarou blinked at him, Tomita-senpai sighed. "Can I borrow your laser pointer, please?"

He couldn't see any reason to say no, though he wasn't sure that Tomita-senpai's smile was trustworthy. He surrendered the lucky item and kept an eye on it.

All that Tomita-senpai did was click the pointer on and send the laser dot moving across the smooth wood of the gym floor—

The cat let out a blood-curdling cry and leapt from its spot on the bench, diving for the red dot as Tomita-senpai sent it dancing across the floor. Everyone left off what they were doing, even Nakatani-kantoku, who was talking strength training with a clutch of the other first-years. Therefore everyone was watching when the cat slid across the slick floor, scrabbling to find purchase. It chased the laser with a single-minded ferocity that was ridiculous when every pounce it made ended up with it sliding a meter or more. It was by far the most absurd thing Shintarou had ever seen, and yet he couldn't quite keep himself from smiling at it.

"Tomita-kun," Nakatani-kantoku called, but even he sounded like he was struggling not to be amused, especially when Tomita-senpai played the laser pointer up the wall and the cat made several impressive attempts to climb after it, vertical surfaces and the law of gravity be damned.

"Takao hasn't had a chance to train for a couple days now," Tomita-kun said immediately, beaming at their coach. "He needs to do some exercise to stay in condition, doesn't he?"

Nakatani-kantoku stared at him and the cat, which was still making earnest efforts to jump high enough to catch the laser dot. "...carry on," he said. That was all the impetus any of them needed to keep sweeping the laser dot back and forth across the gym. The cat chased after it, running full-tilt and making sudden turns that usually sent its hindquarters sliding out from beneath it while the team laughed. Even knowing that this was nothing but purely predatory behavior, Shintarou laughed a little, quietly, too.

Practice didn't end that evening until the cat flopped over and refused to move again, even when Tomita-senpai played the dot right over the tips of its paws. Shintarou had to go pick it up from where it had sprawled, in fact, before they could set the gym back in order and end practice. When he did, the cat promptly closed its eyes and went to sleep in his arms.

Tomita-senpai was still smiling when he passed the laser pointer back to Shintarou. "I feel kinda bad about taking advantage of him while he's indisposed," he confessed. "But that was fantastic." He chucked the cat under its chin. "We ought to have filmed that. It would have made great blackmail material for after he gets back to normal."

"He's not going back to normal," Shintarou reminded him. "He's a cat."

"Not forever," Tomita-senpai said, suddenly serious. "Don't forget that."

"You people are crazy," Shintarou said and went to get changed.

The cat wolfed its dinner down and cried for more so earnestly that Shintarou gave him another can—it had done a lot of running around, after all. Then it occupied itself with a thorough grooming; Shintarou had to look away after a few minutes. "That's disgusting," he said, resolutely not watching.

The cat, being otherwise occupied and also a cat, did not respond.

Shintarou was deep in his studying, preparing history notes for review, when he became aware of a weight pressing against his knee. The cat had raised itself on its hind legs and had a paw on his knee. The very moment he looked, it seemed to take that as permission and flowed its way into his lap.

"What?" Shintarou said. "What, no, no, this is not okay. What are you doing—"

The cat ignored him, setting its claws in his slacks and not letting itself be dislodged when Shintarou attempted to evict it. There was something about the way he could feel its claws, the barest hint of sharpness against his leg, that suggested that the cat could be even more determined about not moving than that.

"I don't even like cats," Shintarou said helplessly. "I hate cats." Despite that, here he was with a cat on his lap beginning to purr and work its paws against the meat of his thigh.

Eventually it fell asleep as Shintarou went back to work on his notes. And if he had set his hand against the thick, soft fur of its back, it was only to keep the cat from sliding off his lap and clawing his leg open as it went, and nothing more than that.

It said something about the resilience of the human mind that on the third morning, when he woke up with the cat tucked against his shoulder and drooling a little on it, Shintarou only sighed and shoved it out of his way when he got up. The cat didn't seem to mind; it immediately burrowed itself into the warm space that Shintarou had just vacated, twisted itself around until it was comfortable, and purred just loudly enough to be heard as Shintarou went about his morning routine.

This didn't mean that he was giving into the collective lunacy of everyone around him or falling for the giant prank, Shintarou told himself. He was just being pragmatic for as long as—for as long as it took. He was good at being pragmatic.

At least some of the novelty of it was wearing off as far as his classmates were concerned. They seemed less inclined to fuss over the cat—not that they didn't, still, but they seemed less excited by getting to do so. Just as well, Shintarou thought, bending his head over his notes and ignoring them. Maybe the lot of them had some kind of chance at developing a shred of common sense after all.

Of course, that was probably why the cat chose that particular day to snub his classmates altogether by joining Shintarou at lunch. It hopped up onto Shintarou's desk without so much as a by-your-leave and fixed an intense stare on Shintarou.

Shintarou was appalled. "Get off of there." He flicked his fingers at it. "I know where those paws have been. Shoo!"

All that got him was a purr as the cat continued to stare at him, full of obscure expectations and clearly not caring that it was getting kitty-litter paws all over Shintarou's desk, where he was eating.

Shintarou poked it with a pencil. "Go away."

It was only the cat's markings that made it appear to be smirking, Shintarou knew that, but even so, he felt a bit of nervous premonition when the cat purred louder, batted at the point of the pencil, and then deliberately set its paw down on the very edge of the lid of Shintarou's bento.

"Argh." He was going to have to boil that before he could even think of ever using it again, and what had his life come to that he was being terrorized by a creature not even one-tenth his mass or brain power? "What do you want?"

The cat dragged the lid closer and licked its chops.

There was a part of Shintarou that could not believe that he was portioning out a share of his lunch for a pushy cat, and a larger part of him aware that at least a few of his classmates were watching with open curiosity. He did it anyway, fairly certain that the cat was just evil-minded enough to steal the whole of it if he didn't share. At any rate, the cat crouched over its share and dug in with gusto.

"You can't blame him, right?" Inoue said, unexpectedly. When Shintarou looked up, Inoue nodded at the cat. "I mean, cat food. Who'd want to live on that? Especially if you're used to better."

"It's a cat. It doesn't know any better," Shintarou said, weary with all the times he'd repeated that in the past few days.

Inoue just smiled, as sly and knowing as—as a cat. "If you say so." He wandered away then to go pester another of their classmates.

Shintarou realized the cat was watching him from behind slitted eyes. "What are you looking at?" he asked it, cross, and dug a book out of his back to read so he would have something sensible to think about.

On the fourth day, Shintarou began to wonder, a little, at how long this joke was lasting. He woke with the cat tucked into the curve of his body, snuggled close and purring contentedly even before he opened his eyes, probably because Shintarou, to his immense personal shame, had spent the first drowsy minutes of semi-consciousness rubbing his fingers through the soft fur under its chin.

It was like some kind of feline Stockholm syndrome, or something. It had to be.

Shintarou knuckled his eyes in horror while the cat meowed, unhappy with the sudden cessation of its chin-rub. "I am going to kill Takao," he muttered and ignored the cat's trill of amusement as he got up.

He thought that perhaps he was not the only one getting a little impatient with the prank. When he arrived for practice that afternoon, Nakatani-kantoku looked at the cat and frowned just a bit. "Still a cat, I see."

Perceiving a possible ally, Shintarou pounced on the opening. "Do you know when Takao will be returning?"

Nakatani-kantoku looked at him. "I suppose it depends." He could not be prevailed upon to say anything more than that.

"I suppose that means I'm stuck with you," Shintarou told the cat later, gloomy over the fact that he was talking to it as though it could understand anything he was saying. "At least for a while longer." It was stupid to talk to a cat, but it wasn't as though there was anyone else around to talk to, not when Takao was away. Not when Shintarou was unwilling to call someone—who? Kise, perhaps? Kuroko? Akashi?

It didn't bear thinking about. Either they would be amused by the entire predicament, or they would be just as—well, he preferred not to know whether Takao had folded them into his conspiracy or not.

Shintarou took stock of his mood and the fact that it was Saturday evening, ordered takeout, and abandoned studying for the night. Plenty of time for that tomorrow afternoon. He turned on the television instead and ate his dinner in front of it, half-furtively, as though his mother was likely to come through the door and chide him for not eating at the table like a civilized person, and found a stupid action movie to watch.

"After all, a person can't study all the time," he told the cat. It trilled back to him the way a human might have been supportive or agreeing, and curled up on the couch behind him like it wanted to watch the movie too. "I can't believe I'm talking to a cat," Shintarou said out loud, but the cat only purred at him.

About halfway through the movie, Shintarou noticed that the cat had begun to migrate. Where it had been curled on the couch's back next to him, it was now curled directly behind him, radiating a surprising amount of heat for such a compact beast. Then, as though his noticing had been its cue, the cat moved again, stretching itself out and extending all four legs. When it settled again, it left one paw resting against Shintarou's shoulder.

"What do you think you're doing?" Shintarou asked it—because he was going as crazy as everyone else, apparently. The cat purred and shifted closer, settling its chin on its paws and tickling his jaw with its whiskers. "Oh, you must be joking."

The cat purred louder and rubbed its cheek against his jaw.

"I am not your territory," Shintarou informed it, as severely as he could, but he was pretty sure that if the cat had been human, it would have laughed at him.

By the end of the movie, the cat was draped half the way down his shoulder, mimicking a fur stole and weighing more than anything that small had any right to. Shintarou had no idea how it managed that particular feat.

It was also surprisingly resistant to being dislodged and ignored all his attempts to shrug it off. It grumbled a protest when Shintarou finally reached up and peeled it off his shoulder, but went limp in his hands and gazed at him sadly. "That's not going to work," Shintarou told it, unimpressed by its latest attempt to insinuate itself into his good graces. But he set it down on the couch next to him instead of dropping it on the floor anyway. (He was definitely losing ground in his disdain for the little predator.)

It muttered a complaint, stretched itself again, splaying its legs stiffly and spreading its paws to show the wicked tips of its claws, and jumped down to the floor to saunter away.

Shintarou hesitated, but let it go. It had proved to be much more—civilized—than any other cat he'd ever seen (which was a limited sample, admittedly, comprising his great-aunt's evil-tempered set of Persians, which tended to claw the hell out of anything they could reach, including reluctant grand-nephews). Letting this cat have the run of the house couldn't do that much harm, he supposed.

He cleaned up the mess from his meal and checked the note from his parents again, wondering when he ought to expect them back and whether he was going to need to make a grocery run before then—the fresh food in the refrigerator was dwindling rapidly. Well, the fruit and vegetables would last a few more days; he set that aside for later consideration and went upstairs to set his notes in order for tomorrow.

That was what he'd meant to do, at any rate. He had barely settled at his desk before the cat came creeping in. It found the feather wand again and dragged it over to his desk, uttering a muffled trill as it did.

"I'm working," Shintarou told it, but it sat on its haunches and looked up at him, waiting expectantly. Much against his will, he remembered how it had looked when it was chasing the laser dot across the gym floor.

He stared at the cat; the cat stared back. Finally he sighed. "Just for a minute," he told it and stooped to take hold of the wand.

The cat chirped in excitement and leapt for the feather almost before he'd gotten a grip on the wand, which startled Shintarou a bit. He pulled back and the cat chased the feather, lashing its tail and pouncing as he drew the feather across the floor. Shintarou snorted and dragged the feather back and forth, swishing it in wide arcs while the cat tracked it across the carpet and launched itself at its prey over and over.

It could be persuaded to chase the feather around in endless tight circles until it wove like a drunken sailor when Shintarou finally pulled the feather across the floor in a straight line. When he flirted it through the air over the cat's head, it proved capable of making prodigious leaps from a standing start, at least a meter and a half by Shintarou's estimate. It would crouch, barely moving, while Shintarou dragged the feather across the floor, then wiggle its hindquarters and launch itself into motion to chase it, and made desperate clawing attempts to keep hold of the feather as Shintarou twitched it out from beneath its paws. By the time it finally flopped over on its side, either tired or bored, it had wisps of pink and purple tufting its chops and claws, and the feather wand was considerably bedraggled.

It was also too late to even think about studying. Shintarou looked at the time and grimaced at the cat. "You're a terrible influence," he informed it.

The cat looked completely satisfied, which he supposed was the way of cats.

Shintarou usually woke up slowly on Sunday mornings, the one day of the week that he could indulge himself in that kind of luxury. This Sunday was no different. He drifted awake slowly, distantly aware that something was strange—oh. The cat wasn't in the bed, was it? He'd left the door cracked open for it, if it wanted to prowl around the house, and it seemed to have taken advantage of the opportunity.

He really hoped that he wasn't going to end up regretting that.

On the other hand, he had to appreciate the cat's withdrawal. It was only a cat, sure, but all the same... he was pleased to have a bit of privacy.

He kicked the blankets down the bed, checked the room one more time for unwanted tabbies, and slipped his hand under the waistband of his pajamas. He sighed and closed his eyes, because that was good, a relief after a handful of days going without. He played his fingers over his cock slowly, over the head and down the shaft, taking his time and letting the pleasure build at a leisurely pace. He didn't bother with a fantasy to go with the movement of his hand, because there wasn't much need for it, not this time, when pleasure was already knotting itself low in his belly, twisting and redoubling itself at the base of his spine as he moved his fingers just like that, yes, and slid them over the head of his cock, already slick and almost too sensitive to touch. It didn't matter that he'd wanted to go slowly, he was already on the edge of coming, moving his hand faster and rocking his hips, quick shallow thrusts as he bit his lip, almost there—ah, yes—the knot of heat and pleasure came undone all at once, snapping through him. Shintarou hissed through his teeth as his cock pulsed and throbbed in his fingers, shuddering with it, and subsided after, breathing fast and feeling loose and heavy in the aftermath.

When he opened his eyes and reached for the tissues to clean up with, he saw the fuzzy, indistinct shape of the cat. It was sitting at the foot of his bed—he groped for his glasses—and staring at him intently. It was purring.

It jumped down from the bed when Shintarou yelled, more from surprise and embarrassment than anything else, but only retreated as far as his desk. It jumped up to perch on the corner, still purring. Shintarou cleaned himself off, face burning, and would have sworn it was laughing at him, if only cats had enough brains to find things amusing and could actually do such a thing.

"You're a filthy pervert," Shintarou told it, disgusted, and stomped down the hall to the privacy of the bathroom.

Before this prank, he'd honestly thought that Takao was the last word in shameless—who decided to just call another person Shin-chan without being explicitly invited to do so? Takao did, apparently—but the cat brought new meaning to the term. He couldn't help being impressed by the way it brazenly hopped into his lap whenever he sat down, ignoring all his attempts to dislodge it and kneading its paws against his thigh, or draping itself across his lap to show the pale, fluffy stripes of its undercarriage. "No," Shintarou told it as it lolled in his lap, paws in the air. "No, I know better. You just want to disembowel my arm. Well, I'm not going to let you do it."

When the cat realized that he really wasn't going to fall for its blandishments, it merely upped its game and began batting at Shintarou's pen as he wrote his notes and worked through practice sets. It outright draped its chin over his wrist and nudged its head under his hand until Shintarou had to give in a little and rub its ears with his off hand if he wanted to have any hope of getting work done.

"You're terrible," he told the cat when it began to purr over this victory. Somehow it contrived to give him a look that was even more smug than usual. "Absolutely horrible."

The cat didn't seem to mind that fact in the slightest.

He woke up Monday morning with the cat purring in his ear and attempting to either groom or eat his hair, Shintarou wasn't sure which. It was a sign of how far he'd fallen that this only made him shudder with revulsion. "I know where that mouth has been." He pushed the cat away; it swiped its tongue across his knuckles, sandpaper rough, and really did seem to be laughing when he shuddered again.

His teachers didn't seem to be laughing when he showed up with the cat. "He's still a cat?" their English teacher asked, giving Shintarou a look full of disapproval, as though Takao's decision to execute this prank was his fault somehow.

"That isn't really Takao," Shintarou said, clinging to the remnants of his sanity for dear life. He'd fallen far enough to talk to the cat, but many people talked to their pets. It was a harmless eccentricity as long as one recognized the essential anthropomorphism of the thing. But he was not going to be stampeded into the delusion that a human teenager had actually been transformed into a cat.

She frowned at him deeply enough that Shintarou shrank from her disapproval, but did not say anything else about it. What could she say? Really, none of this was his doing.

At practice, Tomita-senpai was similarly uncertain, perhaps as a consequence of his recent elevation to captain. "Wow," he said, staring at the cat dozing on Shintarou's bag like it was a throne. "I didn't think he'd let it go on this long."

"Oh," Shintarou said, annoyed, "he's free to call an end to this any time he wants."

"Mm." Tomita-senpai eyed the cat. "I just hope that's soon." Then he clapped his hands together and yelled at them to hurry up and get changed so they could get going on practice.

Shintarou thought that the cat seemed very satisfied by the fact that it could curl up and go to sleep while they hustled out the door to go run laps. But then, self-satisfaction was almost certainly the cat's default state, so perhaps it didn't signify.

On Tuesday morning, Shintarou woke up with the cat lounging on his chest, sprawled across him and purring softly. It flexed its paws like it was dreaming of something, close enough that Shintarou didn't need his glasses to make out any of the details of the curving of its paws or the pale, gleaming hooks of the claws peeping out from dark fur, or the way its whiskers trembled as it sighed and opened its eyes. It watched him for a moment and its purr turned louder, vibrating against Shintarou's chest.

"I don't have any idea why I put up with you," Shintarou told it, raising a hand to rub his thumb against the base of its ears anyway. The cat closed its eyes and leaned into his fingers in blatant pleasure.

Even though he didn't like cats, evil little predators that they were—Shintarou caught himself thinking, absently, that it was rather pleasant to lie in bed, waiting for his alarm to go off and petting this cat. "Feline Stockholm syndrome," he said out loud.

It trilled something, agreement or endorsement, and nudged against his fingers until he was meeting its ear-rubbing needs more satisfactorily.

Their teachers gave the cat looks that were even more dubious that day, frowning at the neat round ball it made as it slept through the day's classes. So did his classmates, Shintarou thought. Most of the things they did and said were utter mysteries to him, so it was possible that the way they had begun to give the cat sidelong glances and bend their heads to whisper to one another had nothing to do with Takao's prank. It was possible... but not very likely, in Shintarou's opinion.

Well, that was going to have to be Takao's problem to deal with later.

That evening, his parents called to check on him, which was unexpected. The noise of the phone jangling downstairs startled both him and the cat, which hissed and bounced off his desk in a fluffed-out puff of fur.

"It must be hard to have such a tiny brain," Shintarou consoled it and went to answer the phone. "Kaasan," he said, surprised to hear her voice on the line. "Hello, how are you?"

"Just fine, of course. And you?" she asked, her crisp tones battling the static of the overseas connection and winning.

Shintarou opened his mouth to complain that everyone in the world had either gone crazy or decided to play the strangest prank ever on him. Then he thought better of it—could already hear his mother asking him what he expected her to do about it—and said, "Just fine."

"I'm glad to hear it," she said. "I called because I need you to check something for me." Ah, that made sense. "Your father left a file on his desk. I need you to find something in it."

"Of course." Shintarou let her direct him into his father's study and sorted through the tidy ranks of files on his desk until he'd found the one she wanted and could read off the list of statistics she'd asked for. "Was there anything else you needed?"

"No, that will be all," she said. "Goodbye, Shintarou."

He echoed that; she hung up before he could say anything else. He went to return the phone to its cradle and saw that the cat was shadowing him. "I wonder how they managed to forget that file," Shintarou told it. "It's not like either of them to be so careless." But it had been one account's budget statistics from three years ago. Perhaps it hadn't seemed important. It didn't matter, anyway—he'd been around to look it up. "I wonder how much longer they'll be gone."

The cat trilled at him. The sound was inquisitive, almost, though it was surely only responding to the sound of his voice.

Shintarou answered it anyway. "No, she didn't say. I didn't get a chance to ask. It doesn't matter—well, it does, because I'm pretending to have a conversation with a cat."

The cat meowed, expressive. For a second Shintarou could almost imagine what Takao would have said. Something about superstition and lucky items and the relative scale of things, probably.

"I used to have principles," he sighed, shaking his head at himself—if this went on for very much longer, he was going to have to call someone, Kise or Kuroko, and to hell with it if they wanted to laugh at him, because at least he'd be talking to someone who'd be able to talk back—and went back upstairs to get back to his homework.

By Thursday afternoon, Shintarou was beginning to detect a distinct air of—not quite impatience, he knew what that looked and sounded like, but it was like impatience—in the way people were looking at the cat and, more bafflingly, him. He couldn't see why; this wasn't his prank, it hadn't been his idea, and he didn't know why anyone should look at him as though it was his fault that Takao had decided that it was an acceptable idea to pull a prank of this magnitude in the run-up to exams. But who knew why Takao did anything?

Nor did he know why Nakatani-kantoku held him back at the end of practice that evening. He looked—pained, perhaps, was the word for it. "Midorima-kun," he said, before he stopped. Shintarou waited while the cat frolicked around his feet. It had developed a fixation on his shoelaces. Eventually Nakatani-kantoku sighed. "Is there... any difficulty that you would like to... discuss?"

Shintarou blinked. "Sir?" he said, not quite understanding the question. Difficulties with what?

"It's been a week," Nakatani-kantoku said. "Surely that's been enough time for you to... work things out?" When Shintarou continued to blink at him, confused, he added, "With Takao."

The man really did look as though it pained him to even be having this conversation.

Shintarou was still confused. "What is there to work out?"

Nakatani-kantoku opened his mouth, looked like he was developing a headache, and sighed again. "I don't know. You would be better informed on that front than I."

What front, Shintarou wondered, wishing that Takao were around. Takao was deft at reframing things in more comprehensible terms. "I haven't heard from Takao since before he went away," he pointed out, which seemed reasonable enough.

The cat, meanwhile, wrapped itself around his ankle and began chewing on his shoelaces.

Nakatani-kantoku looked down at it. "Midorima-kun, he can't deliver soliloquies just now."

The man was clearly referring to the mass delusion that Takao had turned into a cat, but Shintarou didn't let that slow him down too much. "That's not my doing," he pointed out while the cat gnawed on his shoelaces like the vicious killer it was at heart. "And not my responsibility, either."

Nakatani-kantoku looked as though he didn't quite know what he wanted to say to that, or maybe as though he had too many things to choose from. Eventually he settled on saying, "Don't leave it too long, Midorima-kun. I don't believe you would care much for the consequences."

Shintarou watched him walk away, shaking his head, and could guess what Takao would say about that—something about the bottle of teaching vodka that some of the upperclassmen claimed Nakatani-kantoku kept in his office. Then he sighed and stooped to retie his shoelaces—soggy with cat spit, ugh—and head home for the evening.

"Consequences," he said to the cat later. It had draped itself across the stack of his textbooks and made itself into a striped waterfall of fur. When he spoke, it flicked its ears and cracked its eyes open. "I suppose he means exams." Takao was going to have to scramble to catch himself up in time for them, given the time he'd missed. Somehow Shintarou couldn't imagine him studying very hard during this extended absence of his, though he must have been doing something on that front. Why else would their teachers be so accommodating of his absence? Shintarou sighed. "It's his vacation that he'll be spending doing remedial exams," he told the cat. Remedial exams and—perhaps dismissal from the team, if it came to that.

It was a disquieting thought. Shintarou frowned at the cat. "It's not my problem," he told it, resolute. The cat flicked its tail and twisted itself around, oozing down the books and across his notes. It stretched out to its full length, showing the pale skin where its stomach fur was thinnest, and chirped an invitation.

"That is blatant enticement," Shintarou told it, severe. "I am not going to fall for that."

The cat twisted itself around some more, contriving to turn itself back to front. It tucked its forepaws under its chin and trilled again as it gave Shintarou what he supposed some people might call a winsome, if upside-down, look.


"I must be insane too." Shintarou rested his off hand against the cat's stomach very lightly, prepared to snatch it away at the first hint that the cat was inclined to rake its hind feet against his skin—he had picked up the remains of all the fuzzy catnip mice and knew exactly what kind of damage the cat could do with those things, after all.

The cat purred, vibrating beneath his fingers as he stroked its belly—even softer than the rest of its fur—and stretched itself out as he petted it.

"Maybe I'll be taking remedial exams with Takao," Shintarou mused, rubbing his fingers back and forth. "You're a terrible distraction." Despite that, he didn't stop, not even when the cat's purr took on a distinctly smug note.

Miyaji-san showed up to practice on Saturday, unexpectedly given that the third-years were all supposed to be dedicating every waking moment to studying. He sat on the bleachers and watched the rest of them running sprints and drilling—Nakatani-kantoku had them working on passing drills, and Shintarou was starting to really miss Takao's touch with the ball. When Shintarou glanced his way, Miyaji-san was dangling the cord of his jacket for the cat to jump after.

Perhaps it wasn't an entirely unexpected visit. Shintarou didn't miss the way Nakatani-kantoku didn't seem surprised that Miyaji-san was there, or the fact that Miyaji-san hung around even after practice broke up for the day. He was still there after Shintarou finished changing and came in search of the cat. Shintarou watched him drag the cord across the floor; the cat was crouched beneath the bench, its belly low to the floor and its rump in the air. It wriggled its hindquarters as Shintarou watched, shifting and twitching on its paws, then charged, bursting forth from its hiding place and diving for the end of the cord. It went sliding across the floor as Miyaji-san jerked the end of it out of the way.

Miyaji-san laughed and twitched the cord again, enticing the cat into making another dive for it as Shintarou joined him. "Here's what I don't get about you," he said, tone purely conversational, not looking away from the cat. "You're more superstitious than an old lady sometimes and you're honestly convinced that carrying around a tea whisk will ward off bad luck because a morning talk show told you so, but you're having trouble believing that Takao might have turned into a cat." He straightened up, holding the cord away from him and making the end dance in the air, but he didn't seem to be paying much attention to it or the way the cat pawed and bit at it. "What gives?"

Shintarou tightened his grip on the tea whisk and straightened up, affronted by the question. "People don't turn into animals except in stories," he said, annoyed. "This is real life. It doesn't make any sense."

"Things don't, sometimes." Miyaji-san twitched the cord until he got it out of the cat's determined jaws and made it dance while the cat cried at him. "That's the thing, you know. Things don't always have to make perfect sense." He glanced down and jerked the cord out of the cat's reach; it jumped for it anyway. "But think about it. What makes more sense—Takao getting everyone you know, teachers and students and I don't know who else—to go in on a prank that's lasted for a week and some now, or him turning into a cat?"

"I haven't ruled out the possibility that you're all crazy," Shintarou said.

"Oh, sure," Miyaji-san said. "We're the crazy ones. That makes sense." He rolled his eyes. "You're gonna go that route, you ought to go for the simple explanation. Maybe you're the crazy one."

"Like I haven't heard that one before." It came out more curtly than he'd intended.

Miyaji-san looked surprised; the cat took advantage of his moment of distraction and snatched the cord away from his fingers. It trilled with satisfaction and immediately set about tangling itself up in its prize. Meanwhile, Miyaji-san frowned. "Damn," he said. "That... damn. Okay. That's the problem, huh?" He shook his head and pointed at the bench. "Sit down, would you?"

Shintarou sat, unwillingly, as Nakatani-kantoku passed through the gym, glanced at them, and kept going—a sure sign that Miyaji-san wasn't here purely of his own volition. "What problem?"

Miyaji-san took no notice of his wary tone and stretched his legs out as he leaned back on his hands. He watched the cat for a bit; it had already wrapped itself up in its prize and was chewing on the knot at the end of the cord. "It happens sometimes," he said eventually. "Not very often any more, I guess. Or maybe not as often as it used to." He looked Shintarou's way and must have seen that Shintarou hadn't followed his point. "The people into animals thing. Happened to a cousin of mine, actually." He returned his gaze to the cat. "That's why I'm the one talking to you right now and not Ootsubo, who's actually good at this whole nurturing the kouhai shit."

"It can't happen," Shintarou protested. "You would hear about it if it did."

Miyaji-san snorted. "Yeah, how about no?" He shook his head. "You really don't get it, do you? No one turns into an animal for funsies, Midorima. It happens for a reason. There's always a reason." He frowned at the cat. Scowled at it, really. "Problem is, only the person who turns knows why. It's up to the rest of us to figure out why and do something about it. Or... not."

"What, break the spell?" Shintarou asked, with the vague sense that that was what happened in fairy tales.

"It's not a spell. Not really." Miyaji-san sighed. "I don't know what it is. Maybe it's wanting something too much. Or needing something and not having any other way to get it. I dunno. These things don't make ordinary sense, I guess. That's what my mother said, anyway." He glanced Shintarou's way again; his mouth was tight. "My cousin never changed back, you see. Whatever it was that he was after, he couldn't get it. He stayed a rat... and then eventually, he died. Rats don't live very long, you know?" He looked at the cat again. "Or maybe there's a window of opportunity, sort of. Like... there's only so long before the change is permanent. I dunno. It's weird. It's all very weird."

"That's probably the first thing you've said so far that really makes sense," Shintarou told him, taking refuge in irritability, uneasy with the undercurrents of this conversation.

Miyaji-san growled, mostly under his breath, and leaned back on his hands to stare at the ceiling above them. "Would you just once in your life listen to your senpai?" he said once he'd taken a few minutes to do that. "For pity's sake, if you could trust us to have your back in a game, could you maybe entertain the idea that we have it off the court, too?" The cat hissed when he slapped his open palm against the bench. "It's not a joke. No one's crazy. And no one's trying to make a fool out of you, okay? Really, we're not."

Shintarou only realized that he was gripping his lucky tea whisk too tightly when his knuckles began to ache. He loosened them again through a conscious effort and made himself take a deep, slow breath, in and out, before he allowed himself to answer that. "I see. And yet I've never heard of anything like this happening before."

"Because you know it all at the age of—what, sixteen? Seventeen? Sure. I just bet you do." Miyaji-san rolled his eyes again. "Come on, man, this isn't just about you, okay? It's about Takao, too. You want him stuck like that for the rest of—however long he's got?"

"What do you even expect me to do?" Shintarou demanded as the cat left off rolling around with its prey and sat up to watch them, the cord still draped across its face. "That's what no one has bothered to tell me." He pointed at the cat. "I've kept it fed and watered and toted it around according to its feline whims. What else am I supposed to be doing?"

"I dunno," Miyaji-san said. "Could you at least try to pretend that you think that that's Takao? For the sake of argument?"

"Anything else?" Shintarou tried.

Miyaji-san stared at him and then stood abruptly to address himself to the cat. "I'm sorry," he told it, bowing, and either deadly earnest or a much better actor than Shintarou would have expected him to be. "I did try." He shot a dirty look Shintarou's way. "If I thought punching you would get you to listen, I'd go ahead and start a brawl right now. But I don't think it would. So instead I'm just going to say please. Please. For pity's sake, for his sake, forget whatever the fuck your damage is and try to believe that this is really real, okay? I mean, seriously, not everything is actually about you."

The cat uttered a cry, reproachful—if cats could be reproachful about anything but the emptiness of their food dishes—and padded over to wind itself around Miyaji-san's ankles. When he stooped, it suffered its ears to be rubbed, too, at least for a moment. Then it jumped up to the bench and rubbed its cheek against Shintarou's arm.

Miyaji-san looked at them, frowning. "I sure hope you know what you're doing," he said before bending over to pick up the abandoned cord and stalking out.

Shintarou stayed where he was for a while after Miyaji-san left, while the cat rubbed itself against any bits of him that it could reach and purred loudly. He didn't get up to head home until Nakatani-kantoku stuck his head in through the gym doors to give him a very pointed look and throat-clearing.

He traveled home in the same thoughtful frame of mind and let himself into the quiet house without shaking it off. He let the cat out of its preferred travelling space—his bag—and went upstairs to his room. The cat padded along at his heels; when he sat at his desk, it promptly jumped up and flopped onto its side, twisting itself into a feline knot, and began kneading the air as it purred.

Shintarou looked down at it, stymied. "It's not really possible, is the thing," he told it. "It wouldn't make any sense for you to be Takao. It would be embarrassing if you were Takao." There was all the idle conversation he'd made with the cat for lack of anyone else to talk to, not to mention the way the cat had insisted on sleeping in his bed, and, well. There were plenty of things he wouldn't have shared with Takao, since they were the sorts of things that were supposed to be private.

The cat trilled at him and writhed against the desk, giving him a look that was downright suggestive—for a cat. Shintarou sighed and scratched its chin, watching it close its eyes in feline ecstasy.

"Maybe it would be easier if you were him," he told it. "In a way. If all I had to do was figure out how to get him back." He smoothed his fingers over the cat's throat, vibrating under his touch. The cat was watching him from behind slitted eyes. "I miss him," he admitted at last. "I miss thinking he was the kind of friend who wouldn't make a joke of me. I can do that just fine on my own."

The cat meowed quietly and wriggled beneath his hand. It wrapped its forepaws around his wrist; Shintarou tensed, but it didn't offer to use its claws on him. It just rested the pads of its paws against his skin and watched him from behind its eyelids. It meowed again, probably to remind him that he'd been petting it. He resumed that, rubbing beneath its chin. "I guess it could be worse," he told the cat eventually. "This whole thing has been ridiculous, but... as far as I can see, it's—well. Strange. Bizarre. But not—malicious." Not any way that he could see, at least—what good would it do anyone to see him taking care of a cat under duress? He hadn't made himself ridiculous by being too credulous. He wasn't likely to ever make that mistake again.

The cat trilled at him softly. A lesser man would have fooled himself into thinking that it was an inquisitive sound, that the cat was really listening to him. Of course it wasn't, it was only responding to the sound of his voice and the fingers he was rubbing against its throat, but—"It was stupid, he told the cat, cringing even now at the memory. "I was stupid, really. Very naïve, even for a kid. And I really did believe my teacher when he told me—well. It was dumb. Famous musicians don't visit the recitals of elementary school students, no matter how hard they work." Even thinking about it now, years after the fact, how excited he'd been and how disappointed after he'd realized the truth—it made his face feel hot and his stomach clench itself in a sick knot.

Shintarou pushed all that down again, doing it with the ease of practice, and shook his head. "It could be worse," he told the cat, slipping his hand free of its paws and petting it, head to tail. "I suppose you're not so bad, for a tiny, vicious predator." The cat purred, the low rumble of it fairly complacent, and Shintarou petted it slowly. "I wonder what's going to happen to you after this is all over," he said while it arched its back under his fingers. "If they'd let me keep you, maybe." His parents weren't particularly fond of animals, or so he assumed—they'd never had pets—but this cat was better behaved than any other feline he'd ever encountered.

If this wasn't feline Stockholm syndrome, he didn't know what was. But since there didn't seem to be any way of fighting it, he didn't bother worrying over it any more than that and went on petting the cat until they both got hungry and it was time to fix some dinner.

The cat hopped right into his bed when Shintarou peeled back the blankets and curled up on his pillow, lounging there with a feline smirk. Shintarou rolled his eyes at it and lifted it out of his way, but that only inspired it to pad its way across his chest and settle against his ribs, warm and heavy.

"You're completely shameless, aren't you?" Shintarou asked it, resigned and maybe a little amused in spite of himself. The cat merely purred at him in reply. "I should evict you," he told it as he turned out the bedside lamp. "I really should."

But he didn't, and fell asleep with one hand resting against the curl of the cat's back.

When Shintarou woke up, Takao was lying draped across his chest and had his chin pillowed on his hands. He was watching Shintarou, steady and unblinking. The first thing he did was smile, the barest crooking of the corners of his mouth, as Shintarou blinked at him, still muzzy with sleep and trying to figure out why and what and how this was so very strange. It was a very familiar expression, though it lacked a certain something without the accompanying fan of whiskers. "Morning, Shin-chan," he—but no, humans did not purr. They didn't.

"You must be joking," Shintarou said, blank with early-morning confusion. "What the—what? What?"

Takao grinned at him. "It's fantastic how completely inarticulate you are first thing in the morning," he informed Shintarou, obscenely cheerful about it.

He was also apparently perfectly content to continue lounging like that, chest-to-chest with Shintarou—not that the bed was really wide enough for two bodies, in all justice. However, justice did not explain or excuse the fact that Shintarou still had his hand resting against Takao's back.

Shintarou grimaced and rubbed his eyes vigorously, but Takao's weight did not budge. When he opened his eyes again, Takao was still right there, watching him with a disturbingly familiar fixity of purpose. He continued to smile at Shintarou, small and definitely satisfied, while Shintarou did his best to come up with a logical explanation for the fact that Takao was in his bed.

"Oh my god," Shintarou said at last, after every other explanation was found wanting. "You mean you really were a cat?"

"Could have been worse." Takao seemed remarkably unfazed by the whole thing. "Have an uncle who spent some time as a parakeet once, unless the family just made that up to tease him."

"But—you were a cat." Compared to that impossibility and the sudden horrifying realization that if the cat had been Takao all along, he'd heard and seen things that Shintarou would have much preferred to keep to himself, the fact that Takao was continuing to lounge on top of him and showed no inclination to move was a much less pressing matter than it would have been otherwise. "You were—that cat."

Some of the feline edge of Takao's smile softened away. "Yeah, pretty much."

Shintarou stared at him, appalled by this intelligence and the fact that he was going to have to apologize to Miyaji-san, not to mention the fact that he didn't know how to ask Takao how much he remembered—not even sure what all he'd said when he'd thought he was only talking to a creature with a tiny brain and tinier attention span.

Takao's smile softened even further. "Hey," he said, quiet, and reached up to rest the tips of his fingers against Shintarou's jaw. "Stop panicking. You did a good job. And your secrets—they're all safe with me. I promise."

Shintarou took a breath, one so sharp that it felt like it had cut the inside of his throat. "Did you do this on purpose?"

Takao huffed. "Are you kidding? Of course not. Litter boxes, Shin-chan. Who would volunteer for that, seriously?"

It was, Shintarou had to admit, a fairly compelling argument.

The pads of Takao's fingers felt warm against his jaw when Takao began to stroke it lightly. "It wasn't my idea," he said, voice hushed. "Everything stays between you and me. It's not anyone else's business anyway."

"I'm not sure it was yours, either." Shintarou was a little irritated by the way that came out in the same hushed tones Takao was using, instead of angry. Maybe it was because he felt like he should have been angrier than he actually was.

"Some of it, not really," Takao agreed readily enough. "Some of it really not. But some of it..." He went quiet, a kind of quiet that Shintarou found himself unwilling to interrupt. At last Takao smiled, a touch rueful. "Sometimes it's really hard to tell what you're thinking when we're not playing. Or what you think about the rest of us. That makes a lot more sense now, and..." He fell silent again, studying Shintarou with the same unblinking regard that he'd gotten used to receiving from the cat. "I really like you, you know."

Shintarou stared at him, suddenly and acutely aware that Takao was still draped against him and still touching his cheek, neither of which were particularly platonic gestures, were they? He drew a breath, one that didn't do a damn thing about the sudden dizziness he felt, and said, "You do?"

"Yeah." Takao brushed his fingers against Shintarou's cheek, very soft. "I just wasn't quite sure whether you even liked me at all." His smile tilted just a bit. "Especially considering."

Considering what, Shintarou wondered, but—well. The Winter Cup was still a recent enough memory that perhaps he didn't have to ask after all. That was beside the point anyway. "You couldn't have just asked?" he inquired, trying to make the question acid.

The attempt failed and Takao laughed. "I was going to," he said. "Eventually. I was working up to it. Biding my time." He laughed again, probably at himself. "So much for that."

Shintarou looked at him, struck by that and by the memory of all the ways people had looked at him over the past few days and Nakatani-kantoku's attempt to speak to him and Miyaji-san's stern warnings. "What if I hadn't figured it out?" he asked, disturbed. Whatever it was he'd figured out, anyway—Takao seemed satisfied on that point, and wasn't a cat anymore, but the whole thing still seemed obscure to him. "You could have been—"

"Stuck. Yeah, I know." Takao shrugged that away. "Like I said, it wasn't my idea. But... I was pretty sure you'd get it. And even if you didn't... it wasn't so bad, being your cat. You took pretty good care of me for someone who doesn't even like cats." He tipped his head to the side. "Why is that, anyway?"

"Bad experiences," Shintarou told him, unwilling to get into it.

Takao huffed but let it be. "Fair enough. I'm not one for spiders, myself." He brushed his fingers against Shintarou's cheek, soft. "I don't think I'd have minded it very much, anyway."

There was something in the way he said that that Shintarou found he did not like. "I would have minded." He took a deep breath. "And a lot of people would have missed you. I would have missed you."

Takao's eyes went wide and surprised. "You really do like me," he said, more pleased than Shintarou would have expected anyone to be, hearing that from him.

"Yes," he said after a moment, even though admitting it made his face feel hot. "I suppose I do."

"Shin-chan..." Takao's voice had gone hushed again. "I'm glad." He curved his fingers around Shintarou's cheek; the gesture felt surprisingly intimate, but Shintarou found that he didn't mind it. "Really glad."

Takao lifted himself slowly, deliberately so, as though he wanted to be sure of giving Shintarou every chance to stop him. Shintarou didn't and stayed perfectly still as Takao changed the angle of his head just a bit and brought their mouths together. It was soft, a little strange, Takao's lips warm and dry against his and Takao's eyes bare centimeters from his own, half-veiled by his lashes and watching him.

Shintarou lifted his hand from Takao's back and set it in his hair—fine and silky, the texture completely different from what he had gotten used to stroking—and pressed him closer as he kissed back, clumsy at first until the two of them figured out the knack of it together.

It was a while later, Shintarou didn't know how long, when Takao finally pulled away from his mouth long enough to ask, "So, does this mean I can ask for a repeat of last Sunday's performance?"

Dazed and breathless though he was, Shintarou still managed to grasp Takao's meaning all too quickly. He stared up at Takao's flushed cheeks and grin, and did the only logical thing: he pitched Takao out of his bed.

Takao laughed as he tumbled to the floor. He rolled onto his back amid the mess of blankets as Shintarou fumbled for his glasses and did his best to pretend that he had no idea what that was supposed to have meant. "That wasn't a no," he pointed out cheerfully as he sat up. "So, hey, what's for breakfast? I'm dying for something that doesn't come out of a can or promise a silky, healthy coat."

"I changed my mind." Shintarou glared down at him. "I don't like you at all."

"Of course not," Takao said, laughing at him like he knew just as well that Shintarou did that he had been lying. "Now help me up."

"There's no helping you," Shintarou muttered, but he held a hand down to him anyway.

It was a slight tactical error on his part, because Takao immediately used that opportunity to insinuate his arms around Shintarou and kiss him again the moment he was on his feet. "Wouldn't have minded staying a cat," he said against Shintarou's mouth. "But I like this a lot better."

Shintarou lifted his arms and settled them around Takao, carefully, and had to admit that he did, too.


So apparently I have become That Person Who Writes Catfic. I would apologize for this, except that honestly, I'm not sorry. Heh.

Comments are always a joy and delight unto mine heart.