Chimera; noun – something that exists only in the imagination and is not possible in reality.
The first time it happens or, at least, the first time Regina notices it happens, Robyn is four years old.
Regina is hands deep in dirt, digging earth by her apple tree to make room for seasonal fresh blooms. The summer is in full swing, the sun at its zenith is hot on her back and she's decided their front yard needed a little dash of colour. Something to make it more lively. As she scoops a handful of earth and drops it to the side, she keeps a watchful eye on Robyn, playing just a few feet away and sometimes distracted by a passing butterfly. She's fascinated by the little things, their Robyn, always looking for new discoveries. She has her father's heart, there is no doubt in Regina's mind, and it will no doubt bring her courage and luck throughout her life, if also a, sometimes hazardous, sense of adventure.
A bird – a robin, she notices upon looking up – leaves its perch above her head, leaves rustling as it dashes through the thick foliage of the tree and a lonely feather waltzes down, landing atop the small pile of dirt in front of her.
Regina grins instantly, pausing what she's doing to pick up the delicate object between her fingers.
She's been finding these for four years, not every time she thinks of him, but most times, often enough to have associated their presence with him. She has no solid proof he's sending them, these feathers she finds when she feels lonesome or needs an extra nudge in order to keep believing, only her own gut to tell her Robin is in a better place, but she trusts it. Hope, ironically, has become the shoulder she leans on.
As she's about to tuck it safely inside her pocket, screeching tires and a high pitched scream rip through the peacefulness of the afternoon. Startled, Regina drops the feather, forgotten, eyes darting towards the source of the noise, the street, and she grows suddenly nervous, only now noticing the silence that has fallen upon her front yard, the small, bouncing redhead also known as her niece nowhere in sight.
"Robyn?" There's a tremor to Regina's voice as she stands, sweaty palm finding purchase on her thigh to help her up. "Robyn?" she repeats, wiping both hands on her jeans.
She walks to the side of the house, pushing away that gnawing feeling inside her stomach and hoping – there's that hope again – the little girl has just gone inside and forgotten to tell her. She has her hand on the handle of the side door when she hears alarmed voices in the distance, 'Over here! Is she okay? Was she hit?' and Regina's heartbeat accelerates, her legs bringing her to a run without her even realizing it. Before she knows, she's in the middle of the street, fear knotting her insides as she stands still again, taking in the scene before her.
There's a dwarf standing next to the vehicle – she forgets which one, they're all the same to her – gesticulating restlessly as apologies Regina doesn't hear tumble from his lips. The small crowd that had gathered around the car rapidly quiesces and disperses upon her arrival, allowing their mayor to take the last few dreadful steps separating her from the place of the accident.
She braces herself for the worse, blood and death, the inevitable price to pay, the necessary stab of pain that comes with her happiness, but when she reaches the other side of the car, Robyn is still in one piece. Her niece is all smiles and bubbly laughter, spying her aunt in the crowd and running towards her, babbling on about how he's saved her and the butterfly and Look, Regina, I caught it!
Relief floods Regina's veins as she picks up the child and pulls her close to her chest, closing her eyes and burying her nose in Robyn's wild red hair, breathing in her fruity scent, fresh from the shower, and thanking every god of this realm and the Enchanted Forest for not taking this one away from her.
When her niece asks, "Can he please come home with us?" Regina doesn't think about it twice; she would have agreed to anything in that moment.
"Of course, of course," is her reply, and she rocks the precious girl in her arms, reluctant to let her go.
It's been two years since Zelena's death.
Robyn remembers some, Regina's made sure of that. More than once has she caught her niece humming lullabies her sister used to sing to her. When Regina asked her about it, Robyn said she didn't know where the song came from, just that it made her happy when she felt sad. The young girl also prefers green apples over red, much to Regina's chagrin, and she has taken a liking to pistachios, of all things. But while Robyn seems to carry some form of subconscious memory of her mother, she doesn't remember her – a lack that comes as equal parts blessing and curse. Her niece doesn't miss someone who's been by her side her whole life and the loss will hopefully, one day, cease to give her nightmares, but she will also never know how much her mother loved her, in her own distorted way, and how it was this love, this strong, selfless connection, that had both saved and ended Zelena.
True love is sacrifice and, it seems, the foundation of their family history.
After Robyn's near-car accident, summer in Storybrooke is rather dull and uneventful: no villains, no demons and, more importantly, no near-death experiences for anyone. It's a season of play dates at the park and ice cream sundaes, of sunburns and many, many (too many) family barbecues.
They're at Any Given Sundae when it happens the second time. Regina is about to order her niece's favourite ice cream flavour – pistachio, of course – when she feels a tiny hand pulling at the bottom of her blazer.
She glances down. "Yes?"
Robyn fidgets, shifting her weight on the balls of her feet, and whispers, "Can I get Rocky Road, please?"
In any other family, this simple request wouldn't have been a big deal, but for them, this is huge. For as long as Regina has brought the girl to the ice cream shop, pistachio has always won, no matter how many times she has tried to get her niece to taste something different. No amount of bribes were ever enough to make little Robyn change her mind about her order.
Regina chooses not to question her sudden change of heart, even though every part of her wonders what has brought this on, and she tells the clerk they'll get two scoops of rocky road and two scoops of bourbon pecan, please. Robyn's beaming smile is enough to quell the trace of apprehension that was threatening to settle in her chest, making Regina believe there really is nothing out of the ordinary about this.
They eat their ice cream and make plans for the weekend, or rather, Regina makes plans and Robyn happily agrees to everything her aunt proposes. At this rate, they soon won't even have time to do half the things on their list, Regina thinks, but she supposes there are worse problems to have. Robyn's insatiable curiosity never ceases to amaze her, and she would much rather have her hungry for knowledge and adventure than lazy and spending her days in front of the TV, like her cousin tends to do these days – she will need to have a talk with her teenage son as soon as she gets home.
It's thus a summer day like any other and Regina easily could have forgotten about her niece's sudden wish for Rocky Road if it wasn't for one thing: when she gets up to throw away their plastic bowls, she hears her little Robyn say, "You were right. It was very good!" and stops what she's doing, arm suspended in the air, halfway to the trash can.
Thinking her niece is speaking to her, she turns around, ready to reply, but dread roots her to the spot when she sees the child facing away from her, looking up at... well, nothing. There is no one here but them and an elderly couple, and they are looking at Robyn and Regina with concern in their eyes, concern that puts the mayor on edge.
The little girl looks over her shoulder innocently. "Yes, Regina?"
Trying her best to keep the quavering quality of her voice at bay, Regina asks, "Who are you talking to?" and surprises even herself with how steady her words are.
Robyn looks guilty for a moment, before she grins and says, "My friend," as if it's the most natural thing in the realm.
The couple's eyes are still on Regina, who gulps with unease, as she clearly reads the intent behind their defying look, as though they are just waiting for her to crush the girl's heart. She feels something burn inside her. Who do they think she is? What did her alter ego do to them to make them believe she would ever hurt a child that way?
They are some of those who never forgave her. If Snow were here, she'd tell her to let it go, and so Regina does, though she feels their gazes linger at her back, and it makes her shiver unpleasantly. She turns her attention to her niece, tries to ignore the twinge of worry that comes with this new development, and returns the little girl's smile as she tells her to hurry up because they're having dinner with the Charmings. Robyn's friend luckily isn't mentioned again that night, nor does he make an appearance at dinner or the evening that follows, and Regina slowly begins to breathe again.
Maybe it was just a fluke. A one-off. Nothing to worry about.
Still, she keeps an extra vigilant eye on Robyn for the remainder of summer, but outside of bruised knees and insect bites, the next few weeks unfolds without further incidents, giving Regina no cause for alarm.
That is, until school starts.
It's hard, leaving her precious niece in the hands of her kindergarten teacher for the first time, and every morning after that. She's growing too fast, the days slipping through her fingers. She remembers as if it was yesterday, the trials of her conception, the injustice and the heartbreak she'd felt, and how she'd had to put her feelings aside for the child's sake. And now, she loves her, every part of her – doesn't know what her days would be like without that little girl who has so much of Robin in her it sometimes threatens to make Regina's heart burst.
He would be proud, she thinks. His daughter is thriving and succeeding, and she's so, so loved. Every day brings new stories to their dining table: tales of her teacher's antics in class and mid-morning recess with Neal and Alexandra. Henry has fully adopted her as a member of their family, reading to her before bedtime, stories about Robin taken from his storybook, and Robyn always listens intently, as taken with her older cousin as he is with her. As often as they can, they take her to visit her half-brother and uncles in the Enchanted Forest, thus despite the rough start to her story, Regina thinks she can safely say everything has worked out for the best for this little peanut.
It's thus a mystery, really, when Snow White, now school principal, calls her at work, three months into the school year, and tells her Robyn's been talking to herself more and more, and her teacher is getting worried.
Regina tells her she hasn't noticed anything amiss at home. Nothing has changed since Robyn started school, she would know if something was wrong, and Snow assures her it could be just a phase; many kids her age deal with loneliness by having an imaginary friend.
An imaginary friend.
Her niece has an imaginary friend.
Regina's mind is like a broken record as she thinks of warm summer days, ice cream filling their bellies and the sun shining brightly in the cloudless sky, and her sweet niece's unwary mentions of a friend, her voice innocent, her secrets unguarded. A truth Regina had dismissed because she didn't want anything or anyone, rather, to be poking holes into their lives; her happiness has always been fleeting. As long as it wasn't disturbed, she didn't want to risk it, and she hadn't. She had refused to see a problem arising right in front of her and was now paying for her lack of better judgement.
She doesn't go back to work that afternoon. Instead, she surprises Robyn by waiting for her after school in place of her nanny and brings her to the park, where they sit on a bench and Regina tells her five-year-old niece they need to talk about her friend.
"Which friend?" the child questions naively. "I've got many friends! There's Alex – and Neal and Philipp and–"
"The one only you can see," Regina interrupts, her voice meant to be soothing, but still making Robyn's gaze drop to her lap guiltily.
The young girl breathes a hushed "Oh," and looks down at her fingers, curling and uncurling around each other nervously.
If her niece's reaction is any indication, Snow White is right: she does have an imaginary friend – has had one for who knows how long – and doesn't seem to be in a sharing mood, given her silence and sudden lack of enthusiasm.
Robyn's voice is quiet, shaky, almost, when she finally looks up again and asks timidly, "Am I in trouble?"
Regina presses her hand to her niece's shoulder and musters a reassuring smile immediately. "Oh no, my dear." She rubs her thumb on a pudgy cheek. "You could never be in trouble for that."
"Because he said I should wait to tell you – that you would hurt if you knew." Regina's eyes grow wide – he what? – but Robyn is still talking, "And he didn't want you to hurt again," becoming more and more agitated, tears threatening to spill from her beautiful cerulean eyes.
Her father's eyes.
Breathing slowly to keep her growing anxiety in check, Regina strokes the young girl's arm affectionately, until she's calmed and is no longer on the verge of crying.
Only when she's convinced her questions will be heard and not met with more panic does she ask softly, "Robyn, who said that?"
Her niece plays with her fingers for a few more seconds, and then answers, "My friend," her voice high, the way it always is when she tries to hide something.
Smirking slightly because the girl's apparently inherited the Mills stubbornness, Regina tries again, "Who is your friend?" thinking, this time, Robyn will have no choice but to answer.
Indeed, the child opens her mouth but snaps it back shut in the second that follows, looking to the side, lips pressed together and face scrunching in a frown. Regina can only guess she's consulting her so-called friend and anger rises in her belly, a testament to how powerless she feels. She's forced to watch, as Robyn has a silent conversation with someone she knows nothing about, yet whose opinion is clearly important enough to be heard. Whoever her imaginary friend is, he's been in her niece's life far too long, and already too long to simply be snatched away, and that thought scares her.
She'd turned a blind eye to the signs, even though they'd been right there for her to see all along, and she feels panic wash over her, the wave crashing over her queasy stomach. She could have prevented this; she should have prevented this. What would Robin think if he was here?
When over a minute passes and her niece remains silent, Regina insists, "Robyn, who's your friend?"
Her harsher tone has the girl sliding an inch away from her and it reopens an old wound in Regina's heart, making her teeth clench. She hates using this voice with her niece, but it's already taking her every ounce of self-control she has not to burn down the entire playground; Robyn will have to forgive the sharp edges of impatience to her voice.
She's picking at her small fingers again, serious eyes fixed upon her lap as she reflects on her options, and then she finally looks up, breathing in loudly through her nose and mouth for courage, and then she says three words that pull the ground from under her.
"His name's Robin."