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To Catch a Thief

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Willow wasn’t entirely sure how she’d ended up here, but she wasn’t complaining at all. That would make her the only one not complaining.

“Look, I’m sure she’s a great cop,” her new partner (Captain Giles introduced him as Detective Daniel Osbourne, he introduced himself as Oz) said calmly, staring evenly at Chief Giles over the conference room table, “but she’s too green. She’s not ready for this.”

“She’s a quick learner,” Captain Giles defended, “Detective Rosenberg has my complete confidence.”

“She’s not experienced enough, and I’m not either. We’re not going to be good enough.”

“Look, Oz,” the captain sighed, rubbing his glasses against his sleeve . “You’re the best undercover guy we’ve got…”

“I was,” Osbourne interrupted, “but it’s been two years, and I don’t do that anymore.”

“Who else would you have me send? Pryce is in the hospital, Calendar’s already on assignment, and Wells would be a disaster at undercover. Even if you weren't the best undercover cop we've had in a long time, you’re the only detective with undercover experience who's still available. Believe it or not, Oz, the Sunnydale Police Force isn’t all that huge.”

“Well, Sunnydale’s not that huge,” Willow offered shyly, wanting to contribute to the conversation. This was her future assignment that was being negotiated here, and it would be nice to believe that she had some say in what her next six months were going to look like.

“Yet somehow it’s big enough to have its own art smuggling ring,” Oz responded dryly, flashing her a sardonic smile. Smiling was good, Willow decided, not just because he had a nice smile, but mostly because it meant that he didn’t hate her, despite his reservations about working with her. Which were a little offensive, to be honest, but really not all that untrue. Willow had only been on the force for four years, and had just passed her detective examination two weeks ago, and this case seemed a bit big league for her.

'Yes,” Captain Giles cut in, “and I’d very much like there to not be one. Which is why I’m assigning you two.

“I don’t think I asked about your feelings, Osbourne,” he snapped when Oz opened his mouth to respond. “You’re paid to stop crime, not argue with me. Now get out of my office, okay? There’s a woman in the lobby waiting for you. Her name’s Cordelia Chase, and you’re  to do what she says, or you’ll answer to me. Any questions?”

There were none. And that was why Rupert Giles was the most successful police chief Sunnydale had ever had, Willow realized as she and Oz silently filed out of the chief’s office. There were older and more experienced officers on the force, but none of them were as commanding as Giles was. Plus, his incredible arrest record didn’t hurt.

“Want to try again?” Willow asked as they stepped into the precinct’s waiting room. “Introducing ourselves, I mean. Because it looks like we’ll be seeing an awful lot of each other, and I don’t think we started off on the best of terms. If we’re going to partners, we ought to get to know each other a little, don’t you think?”

“Alright,” Oz nodded, looking a little less exasperated than he had a moment ago. “I’m Daniel Osbourne, but I go by Oz. I started as Sunnydale PD, then I worked LAPD for a few years, but I just transferred back to here, as a detective.”

“I’m Willow Rosenberg. I, well, I used to be a grad student, but I’m a cop now, well, a detective, as of two weeks ago. I’ve always wanted to work undercover.”

“Trust me,” Oz answered, not meeting her gaze. “It doesn’t live up to the hype.”

*          *          *

Cordelia Chase, as it turned out, was a behavioural specialist from LA, who specialized in undercover cases. She was demanding, intelligent, professional, very tall, and their handler for this mission. Willow had some fairly mixed feelings about her.

She met the pair of detectives in the waiting room with professional handshakes and an offer of coffee, and she seemed pleasant enough, but Willow was beginning to suspect that she was something of a sadist.

“Are either of you dating anyone?” she asked casually as they stepped out into the California sun, slipping sunglasses out of her bag with an air of vague disinterest. “No? Good. You’ll be posing as lovers, so you’d have needed to dump them.”

“Lovers?” Willow gasped, shocked, tripping over the sidewalk in surprise at that unexpected announcement. Oz automatically reached out to steady her, but didn’t say anything, his raised eyebrows his only indication of surprise.

“Yes, lovers. Keep up, won’t you?” Cordelia shot over her shoulder, not slowing down for Willow to catch up.

And that was Cordelia Chase, as far as Willow could tell. Artfully blasé and tactless all at once, but, underneath the perfect hair and designer shoes, she was quick, direct, and cunning, not to mention, she moved at an incredibly fast pace. It undoubtedly made her very good at her job, but it made casual conversation difficult. Not that this was casual conversation so much as undercover training, but it was the principle of the thing.

“Also, in case nobody mentioned it,” she continued on brusquely, “you’ll be immediately moving into an apartment we’ve found for you two. This afternoon would be ideal, but we can wait until tomorrow I suppose.

“Oz, what size are you?”

“Apartment?” Oz guessed, taken aback by the rapid change in topic.

“No, don’t be ridiculous. Suit, Oz. What size suit do you wear?”

“Uhh..”

“Never mind. We’ll deal with that later.” Cordelia stopped and turned to look at them, letting her two shorter companions catch up with her. Cordelia was fast paced; she walked fast, spoke fast, thought fast, and it was clear she wasn’t accustomed to waiting for people to catch up. She would certainly take some getting used to.

“First thing’s first,” Cordelia announced, giving them both a critical glance. “As of three minutes ago, you two are dating, remember? You’re disgustingly in love. Try and act like it.”

Oz rolled his eyes at her, but reached over to take Willow’s hand in his. Willow, for her part, blushed so red that she could scarcely believe that she was a full grown adult, much less an undercover detective. She smiled embarrassedly at Oz, and the warm, and almost equally awkward, half smile he gave her in return, made her blush all over again.

“If you’re done staring at each other like high schoolers on their first date, I wasn’t finished,” Cordelia announced loudly, watching them both in complete amusement. “You’ll be posing as a wealthy young couple who got rich from fencing art in the minor leagues. We have some fake clients of yours already lined up in LA, so your cover story’s been built for you. You’re just going to need to convince our guy that you can make it in the big leagues.

“His name’s William Pratt, but he goes by Spike, and we have it on good authority that he’s involved,” Cordelia continued, steering them to the door of a tiny coffee shop that Willow had never visited before. “There’s a file on him waiting in your new apartment, so let’s focus on you two now.”

“What about us?” Willow asked self-consciously, ducking her head a little and letting her hair slip around her face.

“I need you to convince me that you’re dating,” Cordelia responded, “or your whole cover will fall apart. And, if you want to catch your guys in flagrante delicto, so to speak, you're going to need one hell of a cover. Now, start! Convince me.”

“Uh, let me get you a coffee?” Oz turned to Willow with eyebrows raised, and Willow had to bite back a giggle at the look of hapless confusion he had.

“Mocha, please,” she answered, and then blushed all over again when Oz leaned over to kiss her cheek before he walked off to order.

“Would you get me an iced latte?” Cordelia asked as he stepped away, handing him a couple of bills when he nodded. “And come meet us outside, okay?”

“Are you sure we should be talking about this outside?” Willow asked uncertainly as Cordelia led her to a table on the shop’s patio. “I mean, anybody could hear us.”

“First thing: when you don’t want people to overhear you, if you can’t go somewhere you know is secure, go somewhere crowded. It’s much louder where there are more people, and they’re all too busy to listen to you anyways. It’s the quiet places where you need to be most careful,” Cordelia told her with the aura of a seasoned teacher, and Willow was left with the impression that she was not the first detective Cordelia had coached through her first undercover assignment. The thought was really very reassuring, given Cordelia’s slightly overwhelming manner. “Secondly, we’re not talking about anything private now. We’re just seeing if the two of you can act at all.”

Oz stepped out onto the patio, carrying a tray with three coffee cups, and scanned the crowd for the two women. “Iced latte” he said quietly as he placed Cordelia’s iced coffee in front of her, “and here’s yours, uh, sweetheart,” he finished, handing Willow hers.

“Try again,” Cordelia sighed, absently stirring her iced coffee as she glared across the table at Oz. “And don’t call her ‘sweetheart.’ That was about as believable as a fake tan. You can do better.”

“Here’s your coffee, hun,” Oz repeated, taking the coffee back to hand it to her all over again.

“Thanks, sweetie?” Willow answered hesitantly, turning to gaze questioningly at Cordelia, awaiting judgment. It was entirely possible that this was the most awkward experience of her life to date. She didn’t know Oz at all, but here they were holding hands and exchanging terms of endearment. The only thing keeping Willow from dissolving into a heap of embarrassment was her commitment to the job, which was seeming less important the longer she sat beside Oz, wilting under Cordelia’s evaluating stare.

“That’s better. Steer clear of long pet names in the future. You sound awkward and ridiculous. ‘Sweetie’ is fine. ‘Sweetheart’ is not.”

“Good to know,” Oz said flatly, in what Willow was beginning to realize was his sarcastic tone. “Anything else?”

“Oh, you better believe it, buddy,” Cordelia grinned like a hyena. “We’re only just getting started.”

*          *          *

After two coffees each and walking three laps around HammersmithPark, Cordelia decided that they were done for the day, and walked Willow and Oz to the apartment they would be living in for the duration of their case.

“So, this is home base,” Oz observed as they walked in, looking around the open living room. “It’s certainly…not that homey.”

“I want you to know that if you ever call this home base again, I will kick you in the gut so hard it will hurt to eat,” Cordelia smiled sweetly at Oz, before she hissed. “Because I can guarantee you that if you refer to your home as ‘home base’ to anybody you are trying to fool into trusting you, they will figure out your cover so fast you won’t even have time to call for back up before they gut you like a trout.”

“Got it,” Oz nodded steadily, not even blinking.

“It’s not much of a home,” Willow said dubiously, noticing the bare fireplace mantel and the empty walls. “It looks like one of those open houses realtors show you, not someplace anybody lives.”

“Well, that’s because nobody lives here,” Cordelia answered, grabbing her purse from where the couch where she set it. “It’s yours for now. Make it look real.

“I’ll see you Wednesday,” she called as she walked out of the apartment. “You’re learning art history, so prepare yourself for hours of endless excitement.”

“So,” Willow began awkwardly, cursing herself for her inability to act like a professional. She hadn’t been this nervous and fumbling for a long time, since high school maybe, but this entire situation was tying her stomach into knots and her tongue into a bow. Maybe it was the pressure of working undercover, maybe it was the idea of sharing an apartment with a man she barely knew, or maybe it was the squirming feeling she’d had in her gut each time he kissed her cheek or took her hand, even though she knew they were meaningless gestures. Whatever it was, it was a hindrance, so Willow took a deep breath, cleared her throat, and resolved to ignore her almost forgotten feelings of shyness. She was Detective Willow Rosenberg now, and this was, as of today, her apartment for her undercover case, and she didn’t have time for useless, childish nerves. “So where should we get started?”

“We should probably get some things from our own apartments,” Oz suggested, “clothes, pictures, whatever.”

“Right,” Willow agreed. “We’ll probably need clothes.”

“Probably,” he smiled, just barely, at her. “You can take the bedroom.”

“What?”

“There’s only one bedroom. You can take it.”

“But, you, I mean…” Willow stammered, flustered all over again.

“It’s cool. I don’t mind sleeping on the couch for you,” Oz told her earnestly, before his lips curled up in a smirk, “sweetheart.”

“Cordelia said not to use ‘sweetheart,’” Willow insisted, wanting to discuss anything but the only bed in their apartment.

“Cordelia said a lot of things,” Oz shrugged, walking towards the door. “We can’t remember it all. Besides, I think it suits you. You have the sweetest smile I’ve ever seen.”

“Really?”

“Sure,” Oz smirked, pulling the front door open. “See you in a while, Willow.”

“Bye,” Willow echoed, the remembered sound of Oz calling her sweetheart rolling through her mind like an echo. Infiltrating a smuggling ring would be hard, and staying undercover would be incredibly difficult, but Willow was beginning to suspect that pretending to be in love with Oz would be surprisingly easy.