“Golly!” Mugman gazed around, his eyes and smile growing wider as he took in the seemingly half of Inkwell’s inhabitants that had somehow managed to squeeze onto their usually quiet corner of the isle. “I still can’t believe all these folks went to all this trouble just for us!”
“Well, y’know what they say, sprout - keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” Cagney said dryly, scratching at the party hat currently marring the full majesty of his petals. “And you two made more than enough of those in the last two years.”
They were a ragtag bunch, that was for sure - hailing from all across the isles and all walks of life, once only bonded by their equally disastrous decisions. But there was Hilda cosied up on her cloud with Cala Maria at the water’s edge, some unholy union of sea and sky as they cackled about how “ real tough guys ain’t afraid to wear pearls”. He assumed Beppi’s head was floating somewhere among the absurd assortment of balloons, presumably so he could annoy - or ‘entertain’ as he called it - as many people as possible while the rest of him remained perched on Djimmi’s shoulder as the latter casually conversed with Grim Matchstick as though it was all the most normal thing in the world. Two years ago, Cagney would never have bet on seeing a dragon flutter down apologetically like he expected to be chased away with pitchforks any second - much less that he’d brighten up when Baroness Von Bon Bon discreetly squeezed his hand before wheeling out her extravagant cake, three tiers adorned with twenty-two candles. It was almost as immediately demolished by Dr Kahl’s robot - because why wouldn’t you design a sentient killing machine with a sweet tooth - but his creator didn’t seem concerned in the slightest, too deep in conversation with Werner Werman about something no doubt equally complicated and life-threatening, judging by their animated expressions and wildly gesticulating hands.
Cuphead just giggled, grinning up at him with what Cagney was pretty sure was moonshine glinting in his head. “Aww, Cags, don’t be jealous. You’re still my favourite worst enemy - ow .” He yelped, pulling his arm back from Cagney’s stem with an accusing look as though it was his fault he’d gotten a little too, well, handsy with his thorns. “Can’t you pull in these things?”
“All these thorns in my side and you’re still the biggest.” Cagney rolled his eyes, a smirk tugging at his lips as he handed them their matching - and immaculately wrapped, if he did say so himself - gift boxes. “Now shut your yap and open these, ‘cause I’m only obliged to be this nice to you mugs one day a year.”
They hadn’t always been the easiest two years. He may have gotten his soul back, but Cagney’s pride had taken as much, if not more than, of a walloping as his body. It wasn’t that he really held a grudge against Cuphead and Mugman for doing what they’d had to, afterwards he’d just felt...exposed. Ashamed, even, to think the whole isles knew now what a pathetic weakling he’d once been, reduced to signing away his soul just to get by. But the cups had given him no chance to hide away and mope, as insistent that they were gonna make it up to Cagney - along with all the other former debtors - as they were about getting his contract in the first place. And even though they were still a lot more trouble than ‘help’ in his garden, he had to admit they made the forest a lot livelier. Without the Devil’s shadow looming over them all, Cagney could watch the little flowers frolic and play without fear, knowing they had a better shot at growing up healthy, happy and safe than he had. For that, he supposed, he could allow himself a small flicker of fondness as the brothers eagerly tore into the paper to reveal two identical, lovingly potted miniature cacti.
“Aww, gee, Mister Cagney, you shouldn’t have!” Mugman chirped, hugging his blue and white-striped pot to his chest and somehow not getting a nose full of spikes. “It’s so...prickly, but so cute!” He glanced at Cuphead, a familiar twinkle of mischief in his eye. “Kinda reminds me of someone…”
“Probably shouldn’t’ve, but I did,” Cagney agreed, opting to ignore that last remark and the warmth it stirred somewhere deep in his stem.
“Who knows - if you take care good care of ‘em, maybe they’ll come to life and fight for ya. No promises, though -“ And now they were both hugging him, caught between two pairs of noodly arms and surprisingly soft porcelain cheeks against his stem. Cagney sighed, the warm feeling now rising to his cheeks as he placed a large, leafy hand around each and gave them a quick squeeze in return. “Alright, alright, you’re welcome - watch the thorns, unless you wanna get impaled for your birthday.”
He might’ve been able to wriggle out of their grasp - had Beppi not spotted them from the sky and gleefully shouted “Group hug for the birthday boys!” Within seconds, literally everyone piled in, whether willingly or dragged along for the ride. They were anything but comfortable, the tiny squashed alongside the gargantuan, a writhing tangle of limbs and leaves and wings and tails and just about everything in between. They were laughing, groaning, squeaking, shrieking - but they were here, still standing, figuratively if not literally at that precise moment. After every losing hand life and the Devil himself had dealt every one of them, they were strong, they were together and - for the most part - they were happy.
And if that wasn’t worth celebrating - this year and every one that followed it - Cagney didn’t know what was.