Hobson's Choice

Through the thrum of the crowd the sound of breaking porcelain drew Oz's attention away from the tangled web of Xander, Angel and the rest of his confused life. He turned his head, instinctively looking to the origin of the noise. His eyes met with Willow's, and the web was suddenly even more tangled.

"Willow," he whispered, and what felt like a thousand emotions overwhelmed his mind in a fog. For her part, the red-headed Wiccan looked equally stunned, ignoring her mother's insistent demands for attention, focusing only on the green eyes of her former boyfriend. He looked back, and the world seemed to fade away, just vague background noise to the scene of Willow sitting, looking back. The moment was broken only when a harassed-looking woman, laden with shopping bags, walked into Oz, nearly knocking the small man off his balance. The woman glared at him, irritated that Oz had got in her way, then strode on again.

When he looked back towards Willow's seat it was empty, her mother crouching down to pick up the bits of the cup Willow had dropped. It was only then that he remembered to breathe, and took in great gulps of air, staring now at the sidewalk beneath his feet.

"Hi, Oz," a familiar voice said to his left. He looked up and Willow stood before him, russet hair shoulder-length, but flicked at the bottom, eyes full of many questions.

"Hey, Will," he said, pausing a touch before continuing, "Uh, how are you?"

"Good. Engaged," Willow held up her left hand, the ring finger of which was adorned by a pretty sapphire set in gold, "Nearly married. Still wondering where you went." She raised an eyebrow.

"Can we go somewhere..." another passerby brushed passed him roughly, "... less crowded?"

She gave a quick nod, and went over to where her mother still sat at their table. A conversation ensued that Oz couldn't quite hear, even with wolf-enhancement. After a minute or two, Mrs. Rosenburg was raising her voice, tinged with stress, and saying something about Willow having too much to do. However, her daughter remained insistent, and the elder woman relented, giving her daughter a peck on the cheek as she got up to leave. She shot a glare at Oz before she walked away, then was gone. Willow left some money on the table, then returned to where Oz was standing.

"Let's take a walk," Willow said, indicating the direction she wanted to go in. Oz nodded, and they set off.

They walked in silence for a little, Oz following Willow to wherever she was heading, and trying to work out what to say.

"So," Willow said at last, "where have you been all this time?"

"Canada, mostly."

"Canada? That's nice. What do you do?"

"I work in a music store. You?"

"I'm teaching, in Sunnydale High of all places." She gave a laugh. "It's quieter now than when we were in school." She paused as they reached what must have been Willow's intended destination, one of Sunnydale's public parks, "Not that I miss the generally lethal dangers that we had to face, or anything like that."

"That was what came of being friends with a Slayer... How is Buffy?"

"Fine, still just... Buffy. She's been in New York for about six months, dealing with a big demony monster of some kind. Giles too. They're both back for the wedding, though. Buffy is my bridesmaid, and Giles is best man." There was a gooey smile on Willow's face as she talked about her impending nuptials. Oz felt ill.

She sat down on one of the wooden benches that dotted the park, Oz joining her. There were a few children playing with a soccer ball in front of them, and a family enjoying a picnic to one side, as the afternoon sun shone down up them. It was all too idyllic for the conversation Oz was having. He wanted it to be dull and wet and horrible, to match his mood.

Willow still had a gooey look on her face. "You must be looking forward to it," he said, swallowing.

There was a brief pause, then Willow jerked as something occurred to her. "Oh, the wedding! You must come! Can you come?"

"Uh, Will, I got sent an invitation already. That wasn't from you?" Oz asked, hesitantly. The origins of the invitation had troubled him -- until it had arrived at his house that morning he hadn't thought anyone had known where he had retreated to, let alone Willow or Xander.

"Invite? You got an invitation?" her eyes widened as she asked, though she sounded simply surprised, rather than shocked.

The werewolf gave a short nod, fished in a shirt pocket and handed Willow the crumpled card. She examined it and shrugged. "It looks like one of ours, and but I think I would have remembered if I'd sent one." She looked up at Oz, and said in a rush, "Not that, you know, I wouldn't have sent you one, cos you were on the list. I wrote one out. I just didn't know where to send it to."

He shrugged. "It's cool. It was a surprise to me."

Willow adopted a shy smile. "The invite, or me and Xander?"

"Both." Oz looked at her. "But especially the you and Xander part."

"I guess it wasn't really something I saw coming either."

Staring at the kids kicking the soccer ball about, Oz heard himself ask, "So when did you two get together?"

"Well, we always have had a bit of history..." she trailed off.

He looked up at that. "Yeah, I remember."

Trying to avoid his gaze she continued, faltering slightly, "And... and well, after you left... Oz, I was a mess. You'd cheated on me. I... Xander, he was there. Buffy too, but she was having to deal with college, and her new boyfriend." She looked him in the eye. "I didn't mean for it to happen, but it did. I mean, he wasn't seeing Cordelia, and you had vanished... we spent lots of time together, and I started to remember why I loved him before. Then, we started seeing each other in November of my freshman year. I've been with him ever since"

Oz tried to ignore the sick feeling in his stomach. "When did he pop the question?"

She smiled at the memory. "The day I graduated. We waited till we'd put some money by before we sorted a date. Hey, which is tomorrow!"

Her hand was on the bench at her lap, and he covered it with his own.

"I'm happy for you. Really. And I'm sorry."

"I know." The smile faded, and she withdrew the hand. "Oz, who was she?"


"The girl. The one that you cheated on me with."

Oz tried to respond, but the words died in his throat. Buffy and Giles hadn't told her... God, was she the only one who didn't know? He couldn't tell her, not the day before the wedding. He cared too much about her to do that. But, then, was it fair to let her go into a marriage without knowing what -- who -- she was marrying? And if she found out later, she'd only be hurt still more...

A shadow suddenly cast across him as he thought. He looked up to see its cause, only for a fist to connect with a sickening thud to his jaw. He tumbled onto the ground, his head bouncing off the corner of the bench with a dull thud.

The last thing he heard before it all went black was Willow screaming, "Xander!"