Ruby's the first one to find a body, left outside Granny's as though it had been dumped in a hurry. She's quick to blame herself and Emma is just as quick to argue that it's in pristine shape, some slight bruising around the neck but nowhere else. And, of course, the lack of blood in the body.
They ID her as friendly blonde Susan who works at the grocery and hold a small funeral, even as the town brims with quiet rage toward the woman who doesn't make an appearance. Regina remains in her palatial home, clinging to dignity and disdain even as she mourns her mother, and Emma doesn't dare ask her if she had been involved with Susan's death.
She does visit on occasion, Henry at her side, and while he's slow to forgive his mother's rampage on Snow White, he's trying, and sometimes he gets a smile for his efforts. Regina's smiles are rarer than ever now, doled out only to her son and Emma. No one else seems lacking.
Regina is having dinner with them when the second murder is discovered, another mostly untouched body drained on Main Street in an alley. Emma talks to her anyway, coaxes out tips for how they might find the murderer. She doesn't go to Gold, not when Neal is still there with his ready smile and the weight of a hundred memories she wants only to forget for good.
No results, just another blonde woman with a funeral coming up and a family to break the news to. And Emma's feeling it all so overwhelmingly, the weight of this town that has become her life shuddering on her shoulders as she struggles for something to do. She patrols the streets nightly, her eyes scanning the passersby for a guilty face, and when she hears a low laugh behind her, she jumps.
She turns, but no one is there.
With the third death, they've officially got a serial killer in a town where reinforcements can't possibly be summoned. There is no one who can help them, and everyone knows it. The killer is one of them- he must be- and the line drawn over town limits has become a cage, locking them in for their eventual deaths.
"What happens when the monster runs out of blondes, huh?" Grumpy demands at an emergency town meeting. Snow is presiding, and Emma is beginning to regret having invited Regina, whose fingers are wrapped around her wrist in a vice grip throughout and who watches Snow speak with a hollow sort of hate that makes Emma miss the ferocity that had been there before. "Who's next?"
When they aren't blaming Regina or Ruby for the murders, Storybrooke's denizens are certain that Cora had unleashed a monster as a final revenge. Emma isn't so sure. She's lived outside of the realm of fairytales and magic to know that the worst kinds of monsters are the ones who can look you in the eye and smile with the confidence of counterfeit innocence.
The streets empty at nightfall these days, the town shuttered and terrified, and their mystery killer is forced to expand his horizons.
When she sees the body of the little girl, yellow hair spread in the puddle of water just a few feet from her front door, she chokes out vomit into the mud.
Snow isn't self-destructive enough to seek out Regina herself, but she pleads with Emma until the other woman concedes to reclaim her job as mayor. Regina rules with an iron fist, and the town murmurs angrily but accedes, grateful to have someone ruthless and dangerous leading them again. Regina buries herself in investigations and curfews and neighborhood organizations, but the Mayor is back in control, her mourning forced to take the backburner to making their town safe again.
Emma is working with her directly now, their end goals the same and their roles interconnected once more. She brings the mayor coffee and determination and tries to summon the Regina she remembers forth again, demanding the empathy she knows is hidden deep down where Regina keeps her guarded heart.
She does it for Henry, Emma likes to think, even if her own heart stops when Regina runs her fingers under a long lock of Emma's golden hair and says, "You shouldn't be out there. We have more than enough people patrolling at night."
But how can she not go, when the people she loves are at risk?
She returns home one night after patrolling, her father at her side as a Regina-approved buddy, and Ashley is slumped down in front of her door. Emma's name is scrawled in blood above Ashley on the door in mocking invitation.
But Ashley is still breathing, and after a transfusion and some panic, she's the first victim who can tell them what had happened to her. "He- it was a man," she says with certainty. "Bigger than me. I had just wanted to take the diaper garbage bag to the trash, and he grabbed me from behind and bit me!"
It's all she remembers, and soon the town is whispering the new, obvious conclusion. Vampire.
Vampires aren't real even in the old world, Emma's certain. But she knows better than to write off an impossibility in this town.
Henry moves back into Regina's home after the attack on Ashley, Emma far more wary of the creature targeting her than of the once-evil queen. More often than not, it's Snow who's living in the house with him, necessity overriding old feuds for the time being. Regina barely leaves her office, too focused on ending this threat to reap the benefits of Henry's newfound trust in her.
Most nights, Emma heads back there after her patrol shift now, rousing the mayor from where she's fast asleep at her desk and coaxing her at the very least to the couch in the room and urging her home. Regina is stubborn but Emma is equally so, and they each win that battle half the time.
Emma always returns to her own home at night, determined to keep the killer targeting only her. She rarely allows herself to be seen in public with Henry and family. They can't become victims, not when they don't have magic to keep them safe.
Regina, at least, has magic, and Emma comforts herself with that knowledge until the day she finds the side table in the mayor's office at the center of room, Regina laid out across it as though asleep. Her skin is paler than it's ever been, and her heart is still.
Emma will not cry over Regina Mills, who'd tried to kill her before and succeeded in sabotaging her life at birth. Emma will not weep for the glimpses of goodness she'd seen in a woman destroyed by her hatred and saved by her love. Emma will not mourn what could have been and maybe felt almost like it might be real, in those few times Regina had smiled at her and leaned on her and felt like family.
There is too much history for anyone to grieve, too much for the people of Storybrooke to ignore, but the town is subdued the next day regardless at the loss of their final horse in this race. Regina is laid out in the morgue, the bruising of what must be the vampire bite where her hair is swept against her neck, and Emma will not cry, she promises herself, even as she shakes with rage and pain and helplessness at the sight of the vital woman so cold and still.
There's a break-in at the hospital that night and one girl goes missing, but when Gold's shop is found empty and abandoned the next morning, no one counts Belle as one of the creature's victims. Magic has no power against the vampire, it seems, and Gold would rather flee with the people he loves.
Emma can't blame him.
Her patrol is quick that night. No one ventures outside, and all public buildings are abandoned after what had happened to Regina. And there's Henry, who'd cried when she'd left and begged her to stay with him that night.
I'm endgame here, she wants to tell him. The vampire isn't coming for me yet. She knows this as instinctively as she knows that the scene in Regina's office had been a macabre display for her benefit, and that Regina fits no profile of the victims but the one where her death would stagger Emma.
She can't stay away from the rest of her family anymore, not when they're just as at risk as anyone in the street now. She can't let Henry hurt anymore than he's already been hurting, and she can't let her parents suffer for her love. The vampire is nothing if not unpredictable, and she thinks that it'll find a way to hurt her no matter what she does.
So she heads back to Regina's house, which is dark and quiet with the solemnity of a house of mourning, and goes inside.
Regina is curled into herself on the couch, rocking back and forth like an addict in withdrawal, her skin too pale and her eyes glinting gold and her arms wrapped around her waist, pressing until the knuckles are white-pink.
She looks up when Emma comes in. "I've had more than enough practice resisting my vilest urges," she says, her voice hoarse. "I told them to run when they invited me in. I need…I need…"
She means to bolt with the terrifying truth of what Regina has become, but instead she steps forward, a hand reaching for a stake she'd kept on hand. "Regina," she tries through a strained voice. "You're…"
"Vampire," Regina agrees, and then her eyes flash yellow and she's standing in front of Emma in an instant, a hand cupping her chin almost gently. "I'm so…hungry," she murmurs, and before Emma can pull her stake out, Regina is nipping at her lips with blunt human teeth, her hands sliding down to pull Emma closer.
Oh. It's everything she's never wanted to want from Regina but is powerless to stop, exploring the other woman's lips and tongue and body with helpless fascination and the desperation of all this, nearly taken from her.
Regina kisses a line down her jaw to her neck, even as her hands move swiftly to distract Emma, and when her teeth slide into Emma's neck she barely notices, clinging to Regina even tighter.
The pull at her neck tugs deep within her, all the way to her core, and Emma is insensible to anything but Regina's lips and tongue and the rhythmic sucking, perfectly in time with the movement of Regina's skin against her skin, with Emma's panting and her pounding heart. It's easy to forget where she is, tangled up with Regina in the middle of Storybrooke's greatest tragedy, and when the realization comes it's easier than ever to reject it, to embrace the oblivion of pleasure and pain that Regina invites now.
Henry, some last ingrained warning of motherhood warns her, and she struggles with her head clouding at the blood loss to make sense of it, of Regina here with her, of what she's signing away her life to now.
She scrambles for her stake with her last breath, tugging it out and wedging it between them. Regina pulls back with a startled hiss, her eyes dark and hungry still.
"Regina, what the hell?" She holds up the stake protectively, taking a step back. Her head aches with the movement, lightheaded from blood loss. "You haven't been killing people all along, have you?"
"Don't be absurd," Regina sniffs, and now that terrifying hunger is gone, replaced by the unamused ruler Emma knows so well. "This is a new development for me." She wipes off her lips, rubbing her fingers against a handkerchief she produces out of nowhere. "I didn't mean to hurt you."
"Never thought I'd hear those words from you," Emma quips, but Regina does look better now, more in control of herself. "We're going to have to get you some blood from the hospital, because I'm not going to be doing that on a regular basis." She swallows, watching a smirk struggle to take hold on Regina's face. "Some of it, anyway," she amends.
"You'd be better off killing me," Regina warns her as she drives them to the hospital.
Emma's head is lolling against the window, her mind unclear as the blood loss sets in. "We don't really…Ruby can kill people. You just have to-" She pauses, her train of thought mostly gone already. "Control yourself," she warns her, and she only fuzzily remembers Regina's lips pressed gently to her forehead and the journey into the hospital.
Regina doesn't leave her side until the blood is administered. The hospital staff asks no questions of the woman who should be dead. After all this time, Regina has gained some sort of trust here, and Emma prays that she won't give them a reason to lose it again.
"This is going to break Henry's heart," she whispers once coherence sets back in.
Regina closes her eyes. "Twice." She rests a hand on Emma's stomach, effectively keeping her down while Regina speaks. "Do you know who did this to me?"
They find Gold in the basement of his shop, the Dark One's dagger still sticking out of his chest. Belle is chained up and gagged across the room, as dangerously low on blood as Emma had been a few hours before.
Neal is seated beside her, toying with a stake that Emma recognizes as one of her own. "I expected you sooner. I was starting to think that your girlfriend had eaten you." He grins, and it's the same disarming, everyman smile that she's used to. "But hey, you live as long as I have, you get used to waiting."
She tenses, disbelieving. "You've always been a vampire. But…I've seen you in the sun before. We had a son together!"
"Yes, well." He twists the stake between his fingers. "The public's view of vampires has changed since Buffy and Lestat. The rules were different back then." He tosses the stake to Regina, shrugging good-naturedly when she catches it, her body rigid like steel at the tease. "Those are the ones that still apply to me."
"And Regina?" She hasn't allowed herself to contemplate the life that Regina's going to have to lead now, not while they've been on this mission. There will be time for that later.
Neal shakes his head. "Emma, don't you see? Regina will never lead a normal life in this town."
It's all been a ploy, designed to target Emma to frame Regina, to ensure that no one in Storybrooke will ever trust their vampire mayor again. That no one will trust Emma's assessment of Regina, when the tally of dead bodies have risen so high.
"Why now? Why here? Did I seem too happy for you?" Her voice is pitching higher and higher, and she leans in toward Regina, protective. "Is that why you came back with us? For vengeance?" She glances toward his father's corpse. It's just beginning to smell.
"Aw, come on Emma, you know I wouldn't hurt you." His boyish face splits in a grin. "I want you to come with me." He nods to Regina. "It's not like you and Henry's other mother can ever lead a normal life here now."
"You bastard," Regina hisses. "This isn't about either of us."
"It's about Henry," Emma finishes, her face grim. Neal wants his son, and he's going to take him by any means necessary, even if it means turning Regina and forcing Emma to come with him or suffer more deaths. "You can't actually think that we would ever let you near him."
"I think," Neal says, standing, and when he takes a step toward them, Belle kicks him in the head.
She tries not to think about Neal, fading away into the dust. Not when they're finally home, Regina's name cleared and the town returned to wariness bordering on hate. Belle has been instrumental in fighting for her rights, Ruby the werewolf her eager second-in-command. One freeing from a prison sentence doesn't excuse the original sentence, but Belle is more forgiving toward 'beasts' than most, and Regina is needier than most right now.
All in all, things are back to the tentative normal they'd been at before Manhattan, with a few notable exceptions.
The bagged blood in the freezer. The boy in the bedroom in which he'd grown up. A better understanding of a mother who'd lacked a heart. The Charmings, a fixture in all their lives.
Emma, in Regina's bed.
The shift is less dramatic than she thinks it might've been otherwise. The town is in an upheaval for long enough to distract them from the vampire and the sheriff, sneaking off on dates and curling up together on the couch. And if the loud noises from Regina's bedroom can be explained off as "vampire nightmares"?
Well, Emma has no problem with that.