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that old king was a friend of mine

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I had a dog and his name was King
I told the dog about everything
Old King sure meant a lot to me
But that hound dog is history

...

Then I thought about the times we had
Once when I kicked him when he was bad
Old King sure meant a lot to me
But that hound dog is history

...

That old King was a friend of mine
Never knew a dog that was half as fine
I may find one, you never do know
'Cause I still got a long way to go

--Neil Young


 

 

It was 1988.

 

Zelda had been out who knew where, with who knew who, doing who knew what. Hilda had been at home, with Ambrose, baking and catching up on some correspondence. The two of them had passed the evening together pleasantly enough and Hilda was just about ready to curl up in bed with a delightfully trashy book.

 

It was past the witching hour and the house was quiet.

 

Ambrose had long since gone up to his room, though Hilda doubted he was actually sleeping just yet. She was just finishing cleaning up in the kitchen, was about to turn out the light and head up to her own bed, when she heard Vinegar Tom whine from out by his doghouse in the backyard.

 

That usually wouldn’t draw Hilda’s attention— he was getting on in years, so he made queer noises often. What worried Hilda was the strange snuffling sound that had accompanied his usual noise.

 

It sounded almost like a moan. Was he sick? Hungry? Was he eating grass and choking on it again? Zelda would kill her, literally, if he was actually sick and she didn’t even check on him. She sighed.

 

She peered out of the kitchen window, leaning over the sink and cupping her hands against the glass to try to see out into the darkness. She spotted a dark shape just outside of the long rectangle of electric light that spread over the grass from the window. It was in the place Vinegar Tom usually occupied, just outside his doghouse, but it looked much bigger than the beagle.

 

Hilda frowned and picked up the heavy rolling pin she had just washed. She went over to the back door, passed Vinegar Tom’s well-worn, but currently unoccupied dog bed and opened it just enough to peek her head out.

 

“Tom?” She called quietly.

 

No response. No movement.

 

“You alright, old boy?”

 

And there it was again. The mysterious sound. Only now, without the barrier of a windowpane, wall, or door separating Hilda from the outside, it sounded like a much more human noise. A rather pathetic human noise.

 

It sounded like a sob.

 

Hilda squinted at the shadowy blob on the lawn, took another step out into the darkness.

 

“Zelda?”

 

And, yes, she breathed a sigh of relief as the dark shape moved and her sister lifted her face towards Hilda.

 

Zelda sniffled rather loudly and inelegantly from her spot on the lawn and leaned down again to say something quiet to her familiar, who Hilda could now see was halfway cradled in her lap.

 

“What are you doing out here in the dark, Zelds?”

 

Hilda set the rolling pin down and made her way over to her sister. Was it Zelda who was sick, rather than Tom? It wouldn’t be the first time Zelda had come home too drunk to properly make her way up to bed, but it hadn’t happened in a few decades.

 

Zelda didn’t respond to Hilda, though she was stroking Vinegar Tom’s fur and murmuring softly to him.

 

Hilda reached her sister, who rivaled her poor old familiar for how pitiful she looked at the moment, sitting, as she was, on the damp grass.

 

“Zelds? Are you alright?”

 

Zelda looked up at Hilda once again, and this time, now that she was closer, Hilda could see that her face was wet and shining with tears. She almost took an abrupt step back at the look of anguish on Zelda’s face. She took a shuddering breath, trying to compose herself, but failing.

 

“He’s dying,” Zelda sobbed.

 

“What?” Hilda gasped. She crouched down, reaching out a hand to touch the old dog, to check on his aura. She could sense nothing wrong. He was warm and wheezing lethargically away as usual. She looked back at her distraught sister, and said, as soothingly as she could manage, “What’s wrong with him, love? He was alright this afternoon, he seems okay,”

 

Zelda glared up at Hilda and announced harshly, “He’s old , you idiot!”

 

Hilda jerked back and landed squarely on her bum. She hastily tried to adjust herself to sit cross legged, as if that was what she’d meant to do.

 

Zelda seemed to take no notice as she went on, “He’s old and he’s dying and I c-c-can’t save him,” she dissolved into tears once more until Hilda put a steady hand on her shoulder. Angry tears of frustration were streaming down Zelda’s face and she scrubbed at her wet cheeks with her palm, before looking helplessly up at Hilda to half whisper, half whine, “I can’t save him, Hilda.”

 

Two more perfect tears ran down Zelda’s face, and dripped off her wobbling chin as she looked imploringly at a wide-eyed Hilda, before crawling the few inches towards her and laying her head in her sister’s lap. She reached out to stroke one of Vinegar Tom’s floppy ears and gave a shuddering sniffle. In answer the old dog let out a snuffled sigh and shuffled closer to Zelda’s warmth.

 

Hilda sighed too, shaking her head in fond exasperation at the two of them.

 

Zelda awkwardly nuzzled into Hilda’s thigh, trying to wipe her face off on Hilda’s skirt, and Hilda had to try not to laugh. Zelda would hate to know how undignified she could be when she was this drunk.

 

Hilda lay a calming hand on Zelda’s head and softly combed her fingers through some of Zelda’s drunkenly accumulated tangles.

 

“There, there, lamb,” she cooed, “he’s alright for now. Let’s go inside and have us a nice cuppa before bedtime, hmm?”

 

Zelda stiffened and grabbed onto Hilda’s calf fiercely. She wrapped her other arm around poor Tom’s middle and dragged him closer to herself, not seeming to notice that he let out a pitiful wheeze at being bodily dragged six or so inches across the wet grass.

 

“No,” she said petulantly, sounding much more like she used to when they were in the nursery together, than the grown witch of nearly three centuries that she was, “I won’t leave him and you can’t make me. He needs me and I won’t abanonim. Wait.” She shook her head a little against Hilda’s leg and tried again. “Abandon. Him.” She nodded firmly once. “You can’t make me.”

 

Hilda sighed. All that was missing was for Zelda to sit up and stick her tongue out at Hilda.

 

“No one wants you to abandon Tom, my love,” except maybe Tom himself at the moment , she didn’t add, “he’ll still be here in the morning, right as rain—” she stopped short when Zelda sat up abruptly at that.

 

The tip of her nose was bright red, she had two fetching blotches of pink high on her cheeks, and her dark, wet eyelashes were sticking together from her tears.

 

She blinked hard a few times, seemingly trying to focus on Hilda’s face, before jabbing one bony finger into Hilda’s chest and leaning towards her, “ You wouldn’t understand,” she slurred, “you have so—” a tiny ladylike belch escaped,  “so many—” a hiccup, this time, “a million-many familiars and they die all the time and you don’t even care!” Hilda didn’t think it was a good time to point out that she only had 33 spiders at the moment. “But I only have the one and I love him!” She blinked a few more times before adding, in what she clearly thought was a scathing tone, “And it’s Vinegar Tom to you, sister . He’s not your friend.” Zelda finished her little tirade with a small hmph and went back to leaning over her familiar and petting his head the way she had been earlier when Hilda had first come out.

 

“Of course,” Hilda tried, “my apologies, Vinegar Tom.” Sometimes it helped if she just went along with whatever Zelda drunkenly said until she could get her up to bed.

 

Tom gave another snuffling sigh.

 

“I know,” Zelda whispered at him, “She’s annoying me too.”

 

Hilda rolled her eyes. Fine.

 

“Alright, then Zelds,” Hilda sighed, “I’ll just leave you to it,” and she made to get up.

 

“Noo!” Zelda shot upright and grabbed Hilda’s leg again, “You can’t leave me! I forbid it!”

 

Hilda snorted and stood up anyway, ignoring the way Zelda clung to her skirt.

 

“You forbid it?” She laughed. Zelda’s brow furrowed and she swayed a bit before catching herself and gripping a handful of grass as if it would somehow make the ground stop drunkenly tilting. “Look at the state of you, Zelds, you couldn’t forbid a toad from— Ugh! Zelda!”

 

Zelda had just thrown up on Hilda’s foot.

 

“Really?”

 

Zelda only groaned and used a handful of Hilda’s skirt to wipe at her mouth.

 

“Gross,” Zelda said, and then she mumbled out a slurred cleaning incantation that, unsurprisingly, didn’t work at all. Even at the best of times, household spells were not Zelda’s forte.

 

“Sorry,” Zelda said, adjusting the way she was sitting and reaching for her own feet, “here, you can take my shoes, they’re clean,” and she started clumsily fiddling with the ankle straps on her pumps.

 

Hilda grimaced and cast the cleaning spell herself.

 

“Zelda, you’re drunk. You should come inside and go to bed.”

 

Zelda seemed not to be listening. She had finally gotten her heels off and offered them up to a frustrated Hilda.

 

“Can you make me some tea?” Zelda whined, “I think I might be ill, I don’t feel good,” and Zelda gave Hilda some over-exaggerated puppy dog eyes, “Tom too?” She held the shoes out a bit farther towards Hilda, as if they were the payment for tea-making, “Please, Hildie? I’m sick,” and she gave two unconvincing fake coughs.

 

Hilda sighed yet again. Zelda did look truly pathetic.

 

“You’re not ill, Zelda, you’re just drunk,”

 

Zelda added a pout to the puppy dog eyes.

 

“Oh, fine,” Hilda was far nicer to her sister than she probably deserved.

 

Zelda beamed. Hilda rolled her eyes and left Zelda on the lawn to get the tea.

 

“Vinegar Tom likes his with lemon,” Zelda called after her.


...

Hilda gathered her supplies and came back outside, carrying two saucers with teacups on them and with a bottle of water under her arm.

 

When she got to Zelda and Vinegar Tom, she paused. Zelda had moved so that she was spooning her familiar, using his side as a pillow while the old dog rested his head on Zelda’s outstretched arm. They were both fast asleep.

 

Hilda set the water bottle down in the grass where Zelda would be sure to see it when she awoke and quietly vanished the two cups of tea back to the kitchen. She took off her oversized knitted cardigan and knelt down in the grass to carefully draped it over the two of them.

 

Zelda stirred, and mumbled out something that might’ve been a slurred ‘thank you, sister’ though Hilda couldn’t be sure.

 

She took a moment to watch her sister sleep. Zelda’s makeup was smudged, there were faint mascara streaks down her cheeks from her earlier tears, her hair was frizzing around the edges and there were tangles in the back. She smiled fondly at her mess of a sister.

 

Hilda pressed a gentle kiss to Zelda’s temple.

 

“I love you, Zelds,” she murmured into her sister’s hair. Then she stood up and added quietly, “drunken fool that you are,” before she went back inside to go to sleep in a proper bed.