On the second of September Andy can't find Woody and, for the first time in a few months, Buzz saves the day by himself. Afterwards, when Andy's gone to dinner and the other toys are stretching out and looking for something to do, Buzz looks around and frowns. It's not like Woody to disappear when Andy wants him and while Buzz doesn't seriously think anything's happened to him it leaves him uneasy. Maybe it's his Space Ranger training, no, Space Ranger programming, that makes him feel mysteries can come back to bite you if not solved quickly.
'Slinky, do you know where Woody is?' he asks.
Slinky scratches one ear and looks embarrassed. ''Fraid I couldn't say,' he offers. It's not an actual denial, but then Slinky's terrible at lying. The anxiety Buzz is already feeling ratchets up a notch.
'Is he all right?'
Slinky's tail droops and he rubs his nose with one paw before apparently deciding Buzz can be trusted. 'Andy's Dad died three years ago today. He use'ta own me an' Woody an' Woody…he remembers stuff better'n I do.'
'Oh.' That's unexpected. Maybe it's because he's only a few months old really but it never occurred to Buzz that Woody would have had a previous owner. Woody just seems so very much Andy's toy, his whole identity revolving around that fact and anchored by a name scrawled on his boot. Buzz is still getting used to that kind of bond, his own identity as a toy a little uncertain, and the idea that Woody had that with someone prior to Andy is almost shocking. 'And you do know where he's gone?' Not that Buzz is sure he wants to find him. What on earth would he say?
'Th' airing cupboard,' says Slinky suddenly. 'He told me in case he was needed.'
'Thank you,' says Buzz. He pats Slinky's head and Slinky wags his tail a little uncertainly.
Buzz sets out for the landing wondering whether he should head for Molly's room and fetch Bo Peep rather than going after Woody himself. But she's been here longer than he has, either she knows or Woody doesn't want her to know. It's probable that he doesn't want Buzz to know either, but it's too late for that now. In the bathroom Buzz finds the airing cupboard door a little ajar, there's no handle on the inside and Woody would have a hard time pulling it closed in any case. For lack of any better ideas Buzz knocks on it.
'Slink?' Woody asks from inside.
'It's me,' says Buzz. 'May I come in?'
'Sure. Is there a problem?' Woody sounds tired but almost hopeful, as if he'd welcome sorting out a tangled wire or a lost accessory as a way to take his mind off whatever he's thinking of right now.
'I'm afraid not,' Buzz answers, then realises he's responded to the tone rather than the words and said something that sounds rather silly.
Fortunately Woody seems to get it and responds with a weary chuckle. 'Slink gave me away then.'
'He - I believe he was worried about you.' Buzz swings himself up the shelves and finds Woody curled against a pile of towels, knees pulled against his chest and the brim of his hat nearly resting on them. He uncurls quickly as Buzz approaches, as if he's only just noticed the way he looks, letting his legs dangle over the shelf and adjusting his hat. The airing cupboard is dark enough for Buzz to be glowing and it gives Woody a greenish pallor that makes him look almost ill.
'I'm okay,' says Woody and Buzz sits down next to him feeling thoroughly at a loss. He'd never really had friends at Star Command, always too busy or too quickly moved between stations. No, he'd never been in Star Command. How hard is that to remember? Buzz tentatively puts one hand on Woody's shoulder and is startled to find the cowboy shaking.
'Are you -' And to Buzz's relief he doesn't have to finish that sentence because Woody interrupts.
'I think I'm losing my mind,' he says, the words quick and sharp as though they're escaping before he can think better of saying them.
'If you want to talk about it I, uh, have some experience in that area,' offers Buzz. Woody stares at him then bursts out laughing, doubling over with it in the way only a rag doll can. Sometimes Buzz wonders how he ever took Woody for human, although how he took himself for human would be a better question. He half glares at Woody, not sure whether to be offended or relieved, until the cowboy sobers up.
'You really do, don't you?' says Woody, wiping at plastic eyes as dry as always. He sighs and curls up again as if he doesn't quite realise he's doing it. 'I just spent the last hour talking to a ghost.'
'Andy's Dad?' asks Buzz, while he tries to process that.
'Slink told you that too, huh? Yeah, he shows up on the anniversary of his death. Every year so far. He wants to know how his kids are doing.'
'He might be real. A ghost doesn't make much less sense than living toys.' Buzz hesitates, struck by a thought. 'Do you want him to be real?'
'I don't know,' says Woody quietly. 'Maybe. That way I wouldn't have lost him, not completely.'
'What was he like?' asks Buzz.
'In some ways a lot like Andy. A good kid and very imaginative. The games he played - he had these two Combat Carl figures only he'd drawn a moustache on one in felt pen and he was Evil Carl. He never seemed to mind, they were inseparable outside of playtime those two Carls. They were the same model and figured it made them brothers.' Buzz wonders briefly about the other Buzz Lightyears out there, whether he'd like them if he met them. Whether it would be more embarrassing to find the entire toyline shares his delusions or to find it was just him. Probably for the best that he's unlikely to meet another Buzz. 'Jake, that's Andy's Dad's name, had these plastic cowboys and indians too, a bit bigger than Sarge and his men,' Woody continues. 'They were a nuisance though, always fighting. Couldn't just knock it off when playtime was over. And the cowboys thought I should be on their side. Sometimes I just felt like taping their lid down and putting them out for a yard sale.' There's scorn in Woody's voice but affection and nostalgia too and Buzz doubts he seriously thought about hurting those cowboys and indians. Or maybe he did, he'd been willing to hurt Buzz once. Buzz pushes the thought down quickly, feeling disloyal.
'And Slinky?' Buzz asks.
Woody nods, looking much happier now that he's lost in recollections. 'Slink too. He'd actually been there longest, I remember he was there when I came out of the box. We had a ranch at one point, Jake made us origami cows to herd.'
'Were they alive?' asks Buzz, he's not sure what the rules are for which toys come alive. Mostly it's the ones with faces, but then there's Etch and Mr. Spell and Buzz can't make any sense of it. Nobody else seems to worry about it.
'Yeah. Like Bo's sheep, they didn't talk or anything. They didn't last long either,' says Woody sadly. 'They got tattered around the edges. Slink and I tried toughening them up with PVA and water - tape would have been noticed - but it didn't help that much. Jake threw them away.'
The sound of Andy coming upstairs interrupts and Buzz wonders whether they should get themselves to somewhere he can find them. But Woody doesn't move and Buzz won't leave him.
'Then Jake grew up,' says Woody, he's not looking at Buzz and Buzz wonders whether he's even the one being spoken to. 'Not all at once, but slowly. Smaller toys were sold, then the Carls and after a while it was just me and Slinky. Jake put us in the attic. We were scared at first but it wasn't so bad up there, really. And he'd kept us, that counted for a lot.'
Buzz thinks of Slinky, the way he always backs Woody up in meetings. Always agrees with him as if Woody were a sort of owner to him as well as a friend. He wonders if it stems from that time in the attic with only the two of them when Woody would have taken care of Slinky and reassured him because that's what he does. Woody always tells people things are going to be okay whether or not he really believes it himself.
'And then he brought us down and gave us to Andy and it was almost like we had him back again, the way he was as a kid,' Woody continues. 'Jake was there too of course, sometimes he even played with us. With Andy. But he was a grown man and Andy was our kid and - and in a way we didn't think of him much anymore.'
'That's only natural,' Buzz suggests, as if he has any idea what's natural for toys. Woody nods but slumps agains the towels and there's something about his posture that tugs at Buzz's heart. He'd looked that way in Sid's house, Buzz realises, under the milk crate. Buzz reaches out and puts an arm around him, expecting to be brushed off. Not at all expecting Woody to sigh and lean into him, leaving him feeling awkward and strangely elated.
'Andy was four when he died,' Woody says into Buzz's shoulder. 'Car crash on the way home from work. Molly wasn't born then, Jennifer didn't even know she was pregnant.' It takes Buzz a moment to realise he means Andy's Mom, he's never heard a toy refer to her by name. 'Andy took me to the funeral. He'd liked me even before that but I hadn't been anything special. And suddenly I was all he had left of his Dad. He held onto me so tightly back then that I kinda thought he always would.'
Woody's shaking again, if he was human he might be crying now. 'He still loves you,' Buzz says, voice as firm as he can make it. 'You know that.'
'Yeah, I know. But it's not the same. Mostly kids need toys in general, they need something to play with, to imagine things with them. But for a while Andy really needed me. And it should be a good thing that he's forgotten a bit, he was so young back then. But now I'm just another toy to him.'
Buzz suddenly feels ashamed. When he'd arrived here he'd simply assumed he understood what was going on. His ship had crashed on a primitive planet with strange and slightly comical natives. Their leader had been hostile to him but, naturally, he had been able to win them over and gain their help in repairing his damaged ship. He had slotted them so neatly into his story, a small detour on the way to saving the universe. A minor subplot at best. 'I'm sorry,' he says.
Woody pushes him away then, but only to get a look at his face. 'What the heck are you apologising for?'
'Arriving here out of nowhere and not even trying to understand.'
Woody looks away and fiddles with the brim of his hat, not meeting Buzz's eyes. 'It wouldn't have mattered. I didn't want you to be a good guy.'
'I'm still sorry,' says Buzz.
'Okay. Thanks. Me too.' They sit in awkward silence for a few moments, neither of them seem to be any better at accepting apologies than they are at making them. Woody is the one to break the silence. 'Then a year after Jake died his ghost showed up. On the dot at the time he died. I ran away the first time.' Woody shoots a defensive glance at Buzz who holds his hands up.
'I would probably have done the same,' he says. That or tried to report it to Star Command, he adds mentally.
'Afterwards I wished I hadn't. We're meant to be there for our owners when they need us and Jake, if he was real, must have needed me. I hoped he'd come back but when he didn't I figured maybe it had to be the anniversary of his death. So the next year I planned for it. I made sure I was somewhere without other toys, if they could see him they'd freak out and if they couldn't they'd think I was nuts. Which I still might be. And he showed up right when I was expecting him. You know the strange thing? I kept wanting to go limp. Even though he was a ghost and the Rules shouldn't have applied I really had to fight it.'
'Is that why you thought of breaking the Rules with Sid?' asks Buzz. 'Prior experience.'
Woody looks startled. 'Maybe. I hadn't thought of it like that.'
'Go on with the story. What did Jake want?'
'To know how Andy and Molly were doing. If it had been anything else I couldn't have helped him, but toys know their kids. He stayed for an hour and then just - faded. Same this year. I think, anyway, I forgot to bring a watch.'
Buzz stays quiet, turning things over in his mind. 'Maybe,' he starts and has to pause to swallow. 'Maybe I could stay with you next year? I won't freak out, I promise. And even if I can't see him I won't assume that you're hallucinating.'
Woody goes very very still, almost as if a human had opened the airing cupboard door unexpectedly, except that he still looks pensive. Then he slowly nods. 'Yeah. You spend as much time with Andy as me now. Makes sense for you to help tell Jake about him.'
Buzz feels something heavy inside him that isn't his wiring. 'That's not how I meant it,' he says.
Woody smiles at him and maybe it's a little sad but it's still real. 'It's not a bad thing. It just takes a little getting used to.'
'It sometimes feels like everything does,' says Buzz, thinking of adjusting to being a toy and accepting that his purpose in life is to make someone happy rather than save the universe. As Woody says, it's not a bad thing.
'Yeah.' Woody clasps Buzz's shoulder, then swings himself over the edge of the shelf to drop easily to the floor. 'Come on, partner. Let's go put ourselves somewhere Andy can find us.'
Buzz flips from shelf to shelf rather than dropping the whole distance at once. It's practical for a heavier toy, but also a little bit of showing off. Woody would once have been annoyed by it and now doesn't even notice. Sometimes Buzz wishes his friend was more easily impressed, but that's not a good thought and Buzz pushes it aside.
They cross the landing to where the sound of Andy imitating bullets indicates a game in progress. Woody pulls Buzz into a corner of the landing, a place where they might conceivably have been overlooked. Then, with a quick grin, pushes Buzz's button and goes limp.
'There's a secret mission in uncharted space!' says Buzz, and he just has time to shoot Woody an irritated look before Andy hears and comes running out to scoop them up and carry them off into the world of his imagination. There's a shark in the waterhole making it impossible for anyone to water their cattle, part of an evil plot by One Eyed Bart. For now the world is full of adventures for a sheriff and a Space Ranger, and in Andy's mind there's nothing they can't handle.