Andy stood at the front of Mrs. Anderson's house nervously. The request he was about to make would make him look like an idiot, but some things couldn't be walked away from or ignored. Mrs. Anderson greeted him cheerfully and asked him in, Andy smiled and braced himself mentally.
'I'm afraid I can't stop,' he said. 'But - you know the toys I left here before? Could I borrow Woody back for a few days? I wanted to show him to someone.'
'Of course, I'm sure Bonnie won't mind. Let me get her,' said Mrs. Anderson. She left Andy standing in front of the door while she went inside. Andy looked at the steps and the garden, remembering playing for one last time beneath those trees which had been green then but were now bare. Had the toys enjoyed it as much as he did, had they watched anxiously as he drove off? Or had they been glad to see the back of him, a neglectful owner who left them in a box for years and had the temerity to grow out of them? Andy hastily wiped the scowl from his face at the sound of footsteps.
Bonnie came forward shyly, Woody clutched in her hands, and held the cowboy doll out to him. Andy took him, surprised by how right it felt to have Woody in his hands again. 'Thank you. I'll bring him back soon, I promise,' he said.
Bonnie nodded. 'Buzz will miss him,' she said seriously and Andy grinned, he'd always played the two of them as best friends as well. Maybe they really were.
'Tell Buzz I'll have him back soon, then,' he said. After thanking Mrs. Anderson he was on his way, back to the car and the drive home.
'You've brought Woody back?' asked Molly, nosy as ever. 'Are you going to play with him?'
'Knock it off, Molly. I just wanted to check something.'
Andy swung the door to the guest bedroom closed behind him, he couldn't think of it as his. His old bedroom belonged to Molly now, but the desk was the same one he'd always had and he placed Woody on it, propping him up against the wall. The cowboy doll slumped a little to the side, looking exactly like the inanimate object he'd always believed it to be and Andy half thought he was going mad.
'Mom never found the toys she threw out by accident,' he said, glaring at Woody as if it was the cowboy's fault. 'She never put them in that box, or wrote a note telling me to donate them. And she never moved you from the college box.' Round brown eyes stared blankly off to his left and the bland smile on Woody's face never changed. 'I asked a few more questions after that. Turns out she never bought me Jessie or Bullseye either, she thought I got them from someone at cowboy camp.' Andy paused and then the words he'd been working up to just came out. 'It was you, wasn't it? Bonnie knew you, and you wanted to belong to her. Why? Didn't you want to come to college? I thought we were friends, but I don't - I don't even know you. For all I know you don't care about me at all.'
That was what stung, the knowledge that Woody had a life of his own and that Andy had never shared it. He knew the brave cowboy of his imagination, he didn't know the rag doll who had deliberately donated himself to someone else. Did toys even enjoy being played with? Did they care about their owners, or just stick with them in the knowledge of how much worse things could be without them? Or maybe he was just going crazy, talking to a rag doll as if it could hear him. Andy sighed and ran a hand through his hair, turning away. 'I'll give you back to Bonnie tomorrow,' he muttered. 'It's where you want to be anyway.'
His hand was on the doorknob when he heard a voice behind him. 'Andy?' It was barely more than a whisper but when Andy looked back Woody was kneeling on the table, gazing at him with an expression that was absolutely heartbroken. Andy gasped and backed against the door, it looked so wrong to see human emotions on a plastic face that his instinctive reaction was fear. Woody reacted by scooting back against he wall, looking terrified himself. 'Don't - please don't be scared,' Woody said. He sounded like his pullstring voice, only he sounded human and not like a scratchy recording. Andy slowly pulled himself away from the door and walked over while Woody kept talking.
'I didn't want to leave you but - the others. Jessie's scared of the dark and Rex - I don't think he could handle not being played with for that long - I'm meant to take care of them. They needed someone to play with them and it didn't have to be you - I mean, they love you but it's not like us and I just - I had to -' He stopped, looking helplessly at Andy who was trying to sort out what he'd just been told.
'You love me,' said Andy.
Woody relaxed, sliding away from the wall to sit more naturally on the desk. It was odd to see him supporting himself instead of leaning against something. 'More than anything,' he said.
Andy pulled out a chair and sat at the desk leaving them not exactly at eye level but at least close to being on the same plane. 'You still left.'
'So did you. I was in the box but you didn't have to give me to Bonnie.'
'So what does that make us? Even?'
Woody sighed. 'I don't know. Do we have to keep score?'
'No,' said Andy, smiling a little. 'Do you want to go back to Bonnie?'
Woody looked at his feet, fidgeting and clearly uncertain. 'I'm still yours. If you want me I'll go with you.'
Andy wondered what it was like, to have an owner and a price tag. To belong to someone not because you chose to but because they had bought you, or been given you. Except that if that was true Woody would consider himself Bonnie's now.
'I still want you. But it's not as if I'd play with you, you'd just be sitting on a shelf,' Andy admitted. 'I guess we could talk, now I know you can.'
Woody shook his head quickly. 'No. This is just - just once. I shouldn't be doing this at all.'
'Is something going to happen to you because of this?' Andy asked, he leant forward resting one hand on either side of Woody as if to shield him from any consequences.
'Not just from this I don't think,' said Woody. 'I don't know if anything would happen at all. But - it doesn't feel right.'
'If this is just once then can I ask you something?' said Andy. When Woody nodded he carried on. 'What are the other toys like? Are they like I imagined them?'
Woody relaxed a bit and chuckled. 'Well, we don't have any villians. The worst that can be said about Hamm and Potato Head is that they like a laugh at someone else's expense. And Rex tries for terrifying but he doesn't exactly have it in him.'
'What about Buzz?'
'Yeah, Buzz is just like you'd imagine. Except when he's in Spanish mode.'
'He has a Spanish mode?'
'I guess you never actually read his instruction manual, huh? He's a lot different in Spanish mode, more…romantic. At least he and Jessie finally got together as a result, but it was pretty strange to see him acting like that.'
'He and Jessie are together?' Andy blinked. The idea of his toys falling in love with one another was pretty strange. 'Do you - have someone?'
'No. Not for a while now.' Woody looked down as he said it, the brim of his hat sheilding his face.
Andy took a guess, insides twisting with guilt already in case he was right. 'Bo Peep?' Woody nodded. 'I'm sorry,' Andy choked.
'It wasn't your fault. She was Molly's. And she's still in the family, in a good home where she can make someone happy. I just won't be there to see her do it.' Woody's voice broke a little on the last sentence and Andy wished he could pick the cowboy up and hug him the way he had in the past. But it was too different now that he was moving and talking, you couldn't just grab someone like that.
'I sold a lot of toys when I was growing up,' said Andy quietly. 'Were they all your friends?'
'Andy.' Woody scooted across the desk to put both his hands on top of one of Andy's, Andy could feel the smooth flexible vinyl against his fingers. 'Don't feel bad about this. You were the best owner any toy could have, but everyone grows up. Everyone human.'
'But not you.' Andy turned his hand over, capturing one of Woody's with his thumb.
Woody stayed silent, hands grasping at Andy's finger, and then he spoke softly as if he was telling a secret. 'Do you want to hear where Jessie and Bullseye came from?'
'Tell me,' Andy answered, eager as a child being offered a bedtime story.
Woody told the story plainly, not trying to make excuses or explain but just laying the whole thing out. The story of how he had been kidnapped by a toy collector the year he didn't go to cowboy camp with Andy. How Buzz and a group of other toys had set out to bring him home. The toys he had met and, finally, the choice he had made. Andy found himself starting to understand all the things he had been wondering about, the story explaining them in a way Woody couldn't without it. The love and loyalty the toys felt for Andy, humbling and awe-inspiring when he hardly felt he deserved it, but also the love and loyalty they felt for each other. The way Woody was both exactly how Andy had imagined him, brave, kind, loyal, stubborn and smart, but also different. Not a cowboy but a toy cowboy, with a toy's anxieties about being lost, broken, outgrown, discarded.
Woody didn't look up until the story was finished and when he did the look in his eyes said, as plain as words, 'Do you still love me now that you know this much about me?' Andy forgot the strangness of the situation, the being sitting in front of him was the same cowboy doll he had loved his whole life, and swept Woody up into a hug. Woody hung from his arms the same way he always had, but this time tiny vinyl hands clutched at his shirt.
'I can't believe you jumped off an airplane to get back to me,' said Andy, voice thick with unshed tears. 'You must be crazy.'
'It was worth it,' said Woody, half laughing half sighing against Andy's chest.
Andy put him back down on the desk and they looked at each other. For the first time Andy really understood the choice he'd offered, a lonely shelf at college with the only benefit the chance to be close to Andy himself. Or playtime and friends in the room of a child whose toys still meant the world to her. It said something about how much he meant to Woody that the cowboy hesitated.
'I think I'd better give you back to Bonnie,' Andy said. 'I want to keep you, but your friends are going to be missing you. So's Bonnie. She takes good care of you, right?'
'The best,' said Woody. 'She believed you when you told her I was something special.'
'She's smart enough to recognise the truth.'
Woody smiled at him and then winced, rubbing his head.
'Woody?' Andy said, hand curling around the cowboy. 'Are you okay?'
'I don't think I can keep this up much longer. Sorry, partner.'
'Wait, this is hurting you? Why didn't you say something sooner?'
'Because this is the only time we'll ever talk like this and I didn't want it to end.' Woody's voice was fierce, angry, but with the circumstances and not with Andy.
'I don't want it to end either, but maybe it's time it did,' said Andy. 'Are you okay with going back to Bonnie?'
Woody nodded. 'Don't forget me?'
'After this do you really think I could?'
Woody looked like he was about to say something else, but his chest was rising and falling as if he couldn't catch enough breath. Then, suddenly, he fell to the side.
'Woody?' Andy propped him up, back into sitting position, but the doll was as floppy and unresponsive as it had ever been. Andy sat there, staring at the doll in his hands until his Mom called him for dinner. Part of him already wondered if the whole thing had been a dream. No, the things that had made him suspect in the first place were still true.
Andy left Woody on the desk while he had dinner. But that night he slept with the cowboy doll beside him, one last time.