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Bad beat

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“ Don’t go out too far, boys!” Elder Kettle lectured, as he began to pack some of the cakes and biscuits back into a wicker basket.

“ We won’t!” Cuphead replied absentmindedly, not bothering to turn his body away from the lush forest in front of him. The boy had been nagged to sit for what felt like hours at the picnic table, trying to listen to some boring show on the portable radio. He hadn’t absorbed any of it.

“ Don’t worry!” A slightly more solicitous Mugman turned to state, giving the old man a reassuring smile.“ We’ll be back real soon! Just gotta stretch our legs, ya know?” He joked, as he tied a small bandana full of bread and apple juice around his shoulders to form a makeshift satchel.

Cuphead rolled his eyes at Mugman’s excess rations. It would be a short galavant through the woods, not a two day trek.

“Alright, but stay safe, you hear?” Elder Kettle said, his grey brow furrowed in concern. The boys shared a look. Why was their mentor being so fretful? They took walks through the forest all the time.

“ What's the sour look about? We beat the devil! everything else is a walk in the park.” Cuphead laughed. “ Are we done now? C’mon, Mug! Lets go!”

Mugman simply rolled his eyes at his brothers eagerness and ran to his side.

With that the two young cups raced into the dense foliage and were soon out of sight.

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Wet leaves raked against Cuphead’s body and chest. The dirt path long ago became eaten up by plantlife and the forest became denser. No sun could shine through such thick foledge, and as such the depths had a dewey chill to them. He looked over to his brother who was having none of it, weaving and dodging the trees to find the dryest path.

“Say Cuphead, maybe we should go back to the dirt road?” Mugman suggested with a sigh.“ It’s so wet and cold through here!”

“Nonsense, bro-” Cuphead began, but got sidetracked when he saw something. “Oh! Look how swell it is over there!”

The eldest cup gestured to an area that they could just see peeking through the leaves a few yards away. It was a large sun filled clearing speckled with bright flowers. In the middle was a large rock formation that Cuphead yearned to clamber and play on.

The boy’s shared a glance and soon the two had shot off in its direction.

“First to climb that rock is the ruler of Inkwell Isle!” Cuphead laughed, pushing his brother playfully.

“Hey, no fair!” Mugman shrieked, stumbling slightly.

The young mug let out a huff at the lead the other boy had now, before running to catch up. A new determination filled his veins. As he closed the distance he shoved his brother out of the way, soon overtaking him.

“ Wo-ah!” Cuphead yelped, more surprised that his usually docile brother would do something so brash than the act itself. Stunned, he jogged into the clearing just in time to see Mugman climb to the tallest bolder. He had a grin that took up most of his face as he bowed repeatedly, as if to show gratitude to his imaginary legion of people.

“ Thankyou, thankyou.” Mugman giggled, sitting down on the warm rock and swaying his legs.

He untied his bandana, setting up a makeshift picnic on a ledge of rock. He took a sip of the ice cold apple juice.

“Hrm. As your new ruler, my first law will be… I get to eat your slice of cake when we get back, Cup!”

“Not a chance!” Cuphead shrilled in protest, a serious expression gracing his face as he tried to climb up the rock. “ Elder Kettle’s teacake is the best! Can I have a quarter still?…No, I need at least half-”

Mugman’s laughter cut him off. His poor older brother was in a panic at the mere thought of not having any cake. If only he took other matters so seriously.

“Pfft, very well. I’m a kind ruler… So I’ll allow you to keep it.” Mugman snickered, offering a hand to help his older brother up onto the rock. Mugman had filled up on bread on the way here anyway, so no loss. Cuphead laughed and accepted the outreached hand as he settled down next to his brother.

The area smelt sweet from so much pollen drifting around. There was also a hint of smoke in the air; Elder Kettle had said it was from nearby chimneys. The two sat in silence, happily eating and drinking for a minute, appreciating the secret spot they had found.

That’s when they heard it.

“- The way you sing off key… The way you haunt my dreams. No, no they can't take that away from me- “

Just through the bushes a mere stone’s throw away, someone was singing. It was a deep and soulful voice that sounded like slowly churning gravel, or perhaps ice cubes knocking around an empty whiskey glass.

The boys knew that voice.

“ You hear that, Mug?” Cuphead whispered.

“ Do I ever.” The other replied in an equally stifled tone. “ Is that, ya know. Him ?”

Normally the boys wouldn’t be so reserved, but if that was who they thought it was…

Mugman quietly folded the condiments back into his fabric sling as Cuphead clambered off the rock. Their sunny spot totally forgotten, the two snuck towards the sound. As they got closer, the voice became even clearer.

“-We may never never meet again, on that bumpy road to love. Still I'll always, always keep the memory of: The way you hold your knife. The way we danced till three. The way you changed my life… No, no they can't take that away from me-”

Peeking through some trees, Cuphead finally saw a glimpse of the man, who had stopped his singing and now was coughing into a cupped hand.

“Mr. King Dice .” Mugman said in hushed awe, once he had stealthily joined his brothers side. “It’s really him. He... Looks terrible .”

Cuphead couldn’t dispute that.

The crumpled man was sitting on a rock, his usual crisp suit incomplete and haggard. His bright violet tailcoat was nowhere to be seen, as was his vest or gloves. All the man had on was a disheveled white dress shirt and purple slacks with a untied bow hanging dejected around his neck. To finish it everything was smothered in a black soot, from his head to his toe. The whole scene told a tale of a man who had been through the rough.

“What do ya’ think happened?” Cuphead drawled, feeling sorrow for the man quietly clawing at him. Underserved empathy, he tried to mentally correct himself. The king pin deserved such a fate for helping the devil.

“I don’t know.” Was all Mugman could provide.

Not satisfied with such an answer, Cuphead stepped out of the clearing and walked towards the man.

“Cup, no!” Mugman squeaked in worry, which probably wasn’t the best idea. If Cuphead hadn’t gotten his attention, King Dice was definitely now aware of their presence.

The bedraggled man rose to his full height, and hit the perpetrators with a cold stare. His eyebrows shot up in shock when he saw who was actually there, looking up at him with large inquisitive eyes.

Mugman and Cuphead in turn at this point saw the large crack that ran down the right side of King Dice’s face. It was deep and splintered off in many directions. It looked painful, and poised to crumble at any moment.

“You two-” He growled, his voice hoarse and tired. “- leave. Now . I am not in the mood for two brats giving me a lecture. Anyone with eyes can see it. I got my comeuppance. I lost. Now at least give me the right to wallow in my own self pity.”

The boys gave each other a confused glance.

“What happened to you ?” Cuphead asked.

King dice scoffed, shaking his head in disbelief.

“You don’t know what happened? Does that old coot Elder Kettle really keep your little heads that far in the sand? Ha, what am I saying? Of course he does .”

King Dice grabbed the boys and pulled them in under his arms, like one would if they were about to tell a grand tale. They struggled to get out of his grip, but his hug that was slightly too tight to be friendly told them it wasn’t happening.

“Say, can you smell smoke in the air today? Well that’s the smell of my casino, burning.” He hissed, his angry facade giving way to a tone of grief.

Cuphead kept his mouth shut in a tight line. Mugman, who usually spoke in behalf of them in tactful situations like this was also silent. Apparently that was the right thing to do, as the man soon chuckled darkly and spoke again.

“Look at you two. You have no clue what you started. When you burnt all those contracts and set the people of Inkwell Isle free; you made the Devil lose all of his power. His web of contacts, favours, the lot. All gone . So he got… Mad. Real mad . Now I’ve been loyal to that son of a bitch for years and I’ve never seen him that unhinged. Red, burning and feral he was. Speaking tongues and throthing at the chops. But the casino was still going well, so I told him to wait. Be patient, people will forget and slip into the same mistakes soon enough-”

King Dice let out a ragged hack which soon turned into a coughing fit, his voice not up to the task of talking so much.

Mugman slipped away from his grasp and set to work pulling out the small bottle of apple juice he had left. Cautiously he handed to the man, who snatched it and gulped from it greedily. Eventually Mr. Dice composed himself enough to speak again.

“He was too angry to listen. He... He said he was sick of waiting. The Devil is not a man but a monster, boys. Never forget it. Because I did and now look at me.”

Cuphead frowned, taking in the information he just recieved.

“The Devil… Did he do that?” Mugman asked, pointing to the large crack on the man’s face tentatively.  

King Dice looked at him dumbly for a moment. It took him a brief pause to realise the boy wasn’t making a terribly distasteful joke about his features but rather the damage to his die.

“Ha ha! No kid. He didn’t lay a hand on me. He ain't that stupid. I got this from a pillar falling on me as I tried to flee my burning casino .The Devil sees this place as a sinkhole. He burnt all ties and split.”

Another awkward silence filled the air, as the two cups didn’t have a clue what to say. Was King Dice a victim in this? Was the Devil really gone? Neither knew what to feel or what to believe.

It seems they didn’t have to decide, as the shrill voice of Elder Kettle broke the air.

“ Get away from my boys, now .” The Kettle growled. The wheezes for air and unfit physique took away any intimitation the threat possessed, however.

Cuphead and Mugman obeyed nonetheless, putting some space between them and King Dice.

Mr. Dice only looked on with a bored disinterest, not caring even the slightest about the Kettle’s presence.

“Oh shut it, old timer. Does it look like I’m up to anything right now? No.” He Drawled, taking another sip of the juice. It was a precaution; he didn’t want to start hacking a lung up again.

“He’s right. He ain’t hurting anyone.” Cupman elaborated when Elder Kettle’s furious stare didn’t waver.

There were a few more beats of tense staring, until Mugman stepped forward.

“Why didn’t you tell us that the smoke was coming from the casino?” Mugman blurted. “ Why did you lie about that? We deserve to know.”

“I need to protect you boys-” The Kettle started, but was cut off by King Dice.

“ I believe the correct term is ‘keep in the dark’, which isn’t a smart thing to do when your sons are the ones that started this whole mess-”

“- And who are you to speak? Why don’t you crawl back to the Devil’s side, you fiend- ” Elder Kettle started, but stopped immediately when he saw King Dice stand up and clench his fists.

Mr. Dice wasn’t reckless, he wasn’t going to fight in this shape. But he had to admit, hearing people still referring to his ties with the Devil made him feel like a fool and he didn’t enjoy it one bit. He had no clue what he was to that thing anymore.

“I would if I knew where the hell he was.” The King seethed. “ But I don’t. And so now I’m left here, with only the clothes off my back and a crack in my face the size of a canyon. A swell trade off, don’t you thin-”

King Dice erupted into another fit of coughing, this time more violent than the first. The tremors through his body caused a large corner of his die to crumble off. Cuphead raced to catch it in his hands. Mugman stood at his side but was unsure of what to do, so wringed at his straw anxiously.

Elder Kettle looked the man up and down, slowly realising how injured he was. The fog of his fear and rage had stopped him from seeing it before.

“You’re hurt.” He quietly stated.

“And the sky is blue.” King Dice bit back, wheezing.

Elder Kettle cleared his throat.

“Look here; I don’t trust you as far as I could throw a penny but you need to get to a doctor as fast as possible. I know a discrete path we can take, away from the townspeople. Then we part ways and you leave Cuphead and Mugman alone, deal?”

All King Dice could do was nod and follow the Elder Kettle as he walked back into the foliage, Cuphead and Mugman trailing behind him.