When Jack woke up that morning, he knew without a doubt that something important was going to happen. There was a thrill of anticipation deep in his bones that caused him to throw his covers off without a second thought and roll out of bed. He yelped as his feet hit chilly floorboards, and dressed quickly to avoid freezing. The heater was on full blast, but it was an old house. It still got chilly during the winter, and this particular winter felt like it was going to last forever.
Even though it was (an admittedly early) Easter, a thick layer of snow still coated the ground. Jack had a feeling that the Easter egg hunt later that day might run into some trouble, but he wasn't really sure he wanted to go anyway. Now that he was almost twelve, he was starting to get a little too old for baby stuff like the Easter Bunny. But his mom would probably make him take Emma...
He sighed and looked at the clock. Just after seven. He had eons before they had to leave for the egg hunt. There was more than enough time for him to sneak out and go skating. Even though it was almost the end of March, the lake near their house was still frozen solid, and for some reason, skating was exactly what he wanted to do today.
He crept down the stairs as quietly as possible. He grabbed his skates from the hall closet and was almost at the front door when--"Jack!"
He turned around to see his sister behind him. She was still in her pajamas, blue with red robots on them, and she was rubbing at her eyes. "Jack, you're not going skating, are you? Mama says it's too late in the year to go skating," she said, a hint of something accusatory in her small voice.
Jack sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. "It's not that late, Emma..."
"Jaaaack," she whined, but she had a light in her eyes that Jack recognized after more than eight long years dealing with it.
"Look," he said entreatingly, "If I take you with me, will you be quiet?"
Bingo. Suddenly, she was all smiles. "Sure! Let me get on my boots!"
It took awhile for him to get her properly dressed, but it wasn't much more than a half hour later that they arrived at the little lake. It wasn't that deep, but even shallow water could be dangerous this time of year. Jack gave the ice an appraising look, but he couldn't see any signs of thinning. "Looks good," he said, flashing a grin at his sister, and walked over to help her lace her skates up.
Soon enough, they were both gliding over frozen ice. Emma was still a little wobbly, but she hadn't been skating for as long as Jack had. He could quite literally skate circles around his little sister--or he could before his mom made him stop. He skated with a natural speed and grace that made his parents look sideways at each other. He'd heard them talking one evening about maybe scraping up the money to get him lessons at a real rink. He hadn't said anything about it, though. Maybe they were saving it for his birthday.
Lost in thoughts of his maybe present, Jack didn't notice that Emma had stopped skating until he heard a sickening crack. Before he even turned to see, he knew what it was. He'd heard that sound only once before, and he'd hoped to never hear it again.
Sure enough, his sister was perched at the apex of a series of cracks that radiated outwards away from her. Even from his position at the other end of the lake, he could see that she was trying not to cry.
He skated as close to her as he possibly could and scanned the ice for anything he could use to grab her. He noticed a large stick not too far away and edged towards it. He had a plan, but it wasn't a good one. As far as he could tell, only one of them was going to get out of this one, and it didn't take him more than a second to figure out which of them it would be. She was his little sister, too young to be gone so quickly, and it was his fault that she was out here in the first place. There was no way he could let her fall through the ice.
"Hey Emma," Jack said, picking up the stick. "Do you want to play a little game?"
"A game? What do you--"
"Just a little game. Just hop, like this," he said, gesturing down to his feet. "Just one," he said, taking a little step, careful not to break the ice further. "Two," he said, waving at her to come closer. "Three!" he said, and when she stepped towards him, he swung out with the stick, pulling Emma towards him as he fell forward to take her place.
"Jack?" Emma's voice was high and frightened.
"It's okay, Emma, really. Go home and get mom and dad. They can help." He wasn't sure how, but he didn't want her to see this. He had to be the big brother now, help Emma out when she needed him, just like his parents had always told him.
"O-okay," she stammered out, then ran back to the banks and took off, stumbling only long enough to tear her skates off before she ran in stockinged feet back in the direction of their house.
He watched her go, and felt the ice shift.
"Oi! What do you think you're doing out there?"
Jack looked up at the sound of a heavily accented voice, but before he could see its owner, the ice opened up beneath him. He couldn't hear anything after that.
* * *
"What happened to your hair, Jack?" How could a healthy preteen boy's hair turn pure white? How could his eyes change color to match?
Jack felt like he'd been asked that question by dozens of different doctors, and when he'd answered it, they'd started sending him to a wholly different kind of doctor. "It was the moon," he'd said. "And the Easter Bunny. The Easter Bunny dove into the lake and saved me, and then he asked the moon to help me. And he did."
And it had been as simple as that, really. To this day, though, Jack had yet to find a single person who believed him. Even Emma had to admit that she had seen no one around the lake before Jack had fallen through the ice. No voice. No rabbit. No moon.
Jack knew what he had seen, though. He had wondered a few times if maybe he had made it up in some kind of frozen delirium. After all, there was no reason for the moon to be out in the middle of the morning and giant rabbits didn't exist. But he didn't think there was any way to make up that rich voice calling out desperately for the moon's help, or the feeling of sodden fur that still somehow exuded warmth as it pressed against his chest. Those memories were too vivid. Sometimes he could still feel that touch against his skin.
As he got older, however, he learned to stop talking about it. No one wanted to hear about giant rabbits and a magical moon. So he lied, shook his head, said he didn't remember. And eventually, they had to accept it. He was put down in the books as a medical miracle. His therapist told his parents that maybe they should try to find him a good outlet for these obviously muddled feelings.
And that was how he found himself a part of the local speedskating team. It was the one good thing that had come out of the whole debacle, in his opinion. His sister still refused to go anywhere near ice, he still had nightmares about inky black water, and he'd heard enough of his parents' tears to last several lifetimes. But at least he had this. The minute he laid foot on the rink, he knew somehow, deeply, intrinsically, that he had come home. And he was good. He started winning competitions, and for better or for worse, that therapist's advice bore fruit. Jack, for the first time in his life, felt centered.
* * *
He skated on the ice slowly, meditatively. The ice was a lot rougher than he remembered, but maybe he was just used to smoother ice now. Safer ice, his common sense reminded him, and he shoved it down ruthlessly. In all honesty, he knew where this small rebellion was coming from. He would be graduating from high school soon and this was maybe the last chance he had to understand what had really happened to him all those years ago. And if he were really truthful with himself, he'd admit that he was hoping to catch a glimpse of long, gray ears.
Jack was just about an adult nowadays. He knew very well that things like the Easter Bunny weren't supposed to exist. No one his age actually believed in the Easter Bunny. But he couldn't let go of a fading memory tinged with frost and the scent of coming spring. No, he wasn't quite ready to give up on the rabbit quite yet.
He was just starting to skate backwards, a habit that had not been encouraged by his mother, when he heard it.
"Bloody show pony."
Jack was so startled that he nearly fell on his rear end right there in the middle of the lake. He knew that voice. He knew that voice! He skidded to an unceremonious stop and looked around wildly for the source of the voice.
Sure enough, there was a figure standing off by a small copse of trees twirling something small and bright in his fingers. His paws, Jack corrected, realizing with a start that there was actually a giant rabbit standing next to the edge of the lake. He was smaller than Jack remembered, or maybe Jack had grown, but he looked far more dangerous than Jack had envisioned as well. He only had half-remembered bits of sensory memory: wet fur, tickling whiskers, warm breath on the back of his neck. He didn't remember the designs that curled through the rabbits fur, he didn't remember piercing green eyes, and he certainly didn't remember the weaponry. "Oh my god."
The rabbit started, then looked around as if there were some other onlooker that Jack could be staring at. "Wait," it said, then hopped (hopped!) closer to the bank. "You can see me?"
"Of course I can!" Jack said. His voice was just a little bit too loud, too high-pitched, but really, who could blame him? It was the goddamn Easter Bunny!
"No, that's not right," the rabbit said, and after a moment Jack realized that he was talking to himself. "He shouldn't be able to see us at this age."
"What are you talking about?" Jack cut in. "Wait, 'us'?"
The rabbit blanched as best he could. "Now you just forget about that one, you flighty little yobbo," he said, scowling. "Aren't you a little old to believe in the Easter Bunny?"
Jack was fairly sure that his face did something complicated at that. The thing standing right in front of him was telling him that he shouldn't be believing in him. Maybe those doctors were right. Maybe he was crazy. He skated right up to the bank of the lake so he could get a better look at his companion. Then, without warning, he reached out and pinched him.
"Ouch!" the rabbit yelped.
Jack shrugged. "It didn't hurt much." It couldn't have, considering he'd mostly gotten a handful of fur.
"What are you going around pinching people for, ya wanker?" the rabbit demanded with a glare.
Jack tried to put on his best innocent face. From the look on the rabbit's face, it was not nearly innocent enough. "I was trying to figure out if you were real?" he tried.
"You're supposed to pinch yourself for that!"
Jack grinned. "Yeah, but that doesn't seem like nearly as much fun."
"Why I oughtta--"
"Hey," Jack said, taking a cautious step back and holding his hands up in front of him. "Are you going to save my life just to kill me again?"
At that, the rabbit stopped stock still and finally looked at him, really looked. "You're the boy that fell in the water," he finally said, his eyes uncomfortably shrewd.
Jack shrugged again. "Yeah. It's hard to stop believing in the Easter Bunny after something like that."
The rabbit's nose twitched, and Jack had to swallow a mad giggle. "You've been doing all right, then? Since that day?"
"Yeah. I've been doing great." Jack smiled at him truly this time. Sure, some parts hadn't been exactly fun--but the fact he was there at all having a conversation with this strange creature who had saved his life was a blessing in and of itself. In fact... Jack put the tip of one of his fingers in his mouth so he could pull his glove off with his teeth, then dropped it into his other hand. He put out his bare hand with a friendly grin. "Hi. My name is Jack Overland."
The rabbit gave his hand a deeply suspicious look that would have offended Jack had he not noticed that the rabbit didn't have the best social skills anyway, then took it in one of his paws. "E. Aster Bunnymund."
Jack shook his hand, then paused for a minute before breaking out into laughter. "Wait, your name is Easter? Really? For real?"
Aster scowled and yanked his paw back. "Oi, belt up."
"No, it--" Jack broke off into helpless giggles again. "It suits you."
"You know, some of us do have jobs to do, brat."
At the mention of this, Jack finally noticed that Aster was carrying a large basket of brightly colored eggs that sparkled with a glittering shine that was not quite earthly. "Oh jeez. You really are the Easter Bunny, aren't you?" Which meant that the overgrown rabbit would probably be on his way any minute.
"Nah, mate, I'm the bloody Groundhog," Aster said, rolling his eyes. "Of course I am."
"Will you--" Jack stopped himself, realized that his voice was letting out far too much of what he was feeling. "Will you be back again?"
For the first time, Aster's gaze softened. It was as if he finally realized the enormity of this encounter, what meeting his savior actually meant to Jack. "Yeah. I'll be back next year, Jacko. I come 'round every Easter--kind of in the job description," he said, gentling his voice. He looked away then to rummage around in his basket, then pulled out a small, frost-colored egg which he presented to Jack. "Here you go, mate. Something to remember me by."
"Thanks," Jack said, ignoring the lump rising up in his throat. He wasn't sure what exactly he'd ever planned to do if his furry savior had shown up again, but playful bickering by the side of a frozen lake had not been high up on his list. Somehow, though, he found that he couldn't complain one bit. He took the egg and placed it safe in the pocket of his heavy coat.
"G'bye, Jack," Aster said, and Jack just barely managed a nod in reply. He watched the rabbit go, his movements surprisingly lithe for a creature so large. And then Aster paused and turned just a bit. Jacked tensed up, waiting.
"Jack?" Aster called back over his shoulder.
"Yeah?" Jack asked, heart in his throat.
"Stay off the ice, ya bloody drongo. D’you have a death wish or something?"
Startled out of his melancholy, Jack couldn't help but laugh long and loud.