Based on a picture by Ju-Fate(on DeviantART).
Gray and Cliff were left in the snow, completely dazed. As Mary returned to the battlefield, with the local doctor in tow, Gray began to piece together what had just happened, in the hopes that he could remember exactly how he'd wound up in this mess...
It had started the previous day, when a blizzard had left the whole village locked down. Cliff had marveled at the snow, Ann relished the day inside, and from his usual corner, Gray brooded. He knew what he'd be doing when this storm let up, and he wasn't looking forward to it at all.
"I can't believe you, man. It never snowed where I came from, and let me tell you, winter's miserable without the stuff! It's amazing..."
Glaring at his roommate, Gray just shook his head. He wasn't going to be the one to break it to him. Meanwhile, Ann had taken a five-gallon bucket, and started to fill it up so she could clean the floors.
"She's such an obsessive neat-freak," Cliff said. "You'd think she could let it go for a day, wouldn't you?"
"Just because you're a lazy bum doesn't mean I have to be." Ann piped. "Now earn your keep and take this bucket upstairs for me, smartass."
Cliff rolled his eyes, got up from his now-finished breakfast, and obeyed "The Bossy Queen's" orders with his usual sarcasm. Beneath his cap, Gray smirked quietly and shook his head. He had no idea why they'd chosen to start dating. The two of them were always at each others' throats.
Still, when they argued like that, it was sorta cute...
Gray went back to staring at the snow outside the inn's window. The weather chick had said there'd be a good twenty-three inches by the time it was all done. Twenty-three inches of snow, damn it! What divine force was in charge of the local weather, anyway!?
And why did he have to be press-ganged into helping clear it all?
Oh, he'd heard the usual spiel from his grandfather, of course.
"You'd rather an old man like me die of a heart-attack out there, hm?" Those had been his exact words this time, although he knew of at least twenty-eight more such gripes his grandpa liked to throw at him when he started complaining about snow-shoveling...
And of course, Harris had dredged up that law that every able-bodied man between the ages of 12 and 25 was required to clear the streets in the event of a blizzard...
Damn it. He hated having to shovel the frickin snow! He hated breaking his back in the freezing cold, watching as his pithy little snowshovel made the tiniest of dents in the job at hand, hated hitting his limits out there in the freezing weather, and hated the fact that he couldn't dodge out of it if he'd seriously tried.
But worst of all, he hated the fact that he'd likely have to do it all again another five thousand times this winter. He was not looking forward to killing himself while fighting a losing battle with the elements...
And Cliff... had volunteered... what kind of idiot volunteers to shovel snow anyway!? Especially since he was usually so laid back! Alright, he did have that warped sense of responsibility, that mindset that he had to earn his keep, despite having the self-motivation of a chunk of iron ore, but one would think that he'd have the brains to know a tough job when he heard of one, and the sense to run for the damn hills when one approached him.
"Damn it, Ann! Can't you just fill this thing halfway next time?"
Gray smirked, and allowed himself a small chuckle. At least he'd get his vengeance on Cliff tomorrow...
"I need a break, man."
Gray glared at Cliff, told him to shut up, and kept shoveling.
"Why do we have to do this, anyway?"
"Save your breath," Gray snapped. "You're the one who volunteered, remember?"
"Yeah," Cliff panted, "but I didn't know it'd be this hard!"
"Tough. It's gotta get done, and we're the ones who have to do it. Now get back to shoveling."
Gray would probably admit that he was being unfair later, setting a pace that Cliff, unused to heavy, back-breaking labor, couldn't possibly keep up with, but after only two minutes of shoveling Cliff had gotten on his last nerve. If he collapsed, Gray would just bury him on the roadside and move on.
At least the two of them weren't the only ones killing themselves out here, though. The mayor had told him that there were three two-man teams to clear the streets this year, and that a support station had also been established to provide refreshments. Last year there'd only been two teams, and the support team had consisted of the doctor checking on all of them to make sure they didn't kill themselves.
They'd never gotten the streets completely cleared, and what they had managed to clean up had taken three days. Since they'd been only been given one to do all of last year's workload and more, Gray wasn't sure if the new farmer's arrival, and the workload reorganization this had caused, was a good thing or not.
"Hey man, it's getting deeper!"
"That's called a snowdrift, moron. It's a pretty common thing when it snows this much."
"When do we get a break?"
Gray considered knocking Cliff out, but quickly dismissed the notion. That would only mean more work for himself later.
"Alright, that's time! Over to the rest station, boys!"
Gray nodded quietly to acknowledge the mayor, and followed Mayor Thomas to the rest station with his shovel over one shoulder. Cliff, staggering from exhaustion, followed behind slowly. Gray noted that he'd decided to leave his shovel behind, and shook his head at such folly. His grandfather would've reamed him for neglecting a tool like that.
"Man, I'm so glad that's over with!" Karen declared, loudly enough to be heard in Forget-Me-Not Valley.
Gray, less enthusiastically, nodded his agreement. He was bone-tired, and this wouldn't be the last time they'd have to clear the town's roads before the end of winter. Any time it snowed, there was a little more to do.
And it was snowing right now.
"Man, after today I never want to see it snowing again." Cliff whined. "There's no way I can go out there and do all that again..."
The members of the Mineral Town snow shoveling teams, assembled for a victory mug of hot cocoa, toasted their silent agreement. Well, most of them did...
Gray hardly had time to notice that Ann was missing before a cold, wet projectile thudded into the back of his head, knocking his hat off.
"SNOWBALL FIGHT!" Ann exclaimed, "BOYS VS GIRLS! WHO'S IN?"
"Count me out," Karen said, "I'm too tired to throw things. Besides, how'd you manage to make a snowball out of that stuff?" She pointed out the nearest window. "Powder snow is the worst type for packing!"
"Well... I modified the icemaker so it'd make a decent substitute. Not bad, huh?"
"Certainly resourceful," Rick answered, "And if you don't mind, I think I'm coming down with a cold as-is. Count me out, as well."
Jack, stretching out as he got out of his chair, merely mentioned some chores he had to finish up before he walked out the door.
"Well, you can count me in!" Cliff said. "I've never been in a snowball fight before. Sounds like fu-AAGH!"
"How many times do you have to get pounded before you get a frickin clue, Cliff?" Gray asked, his hand clenched tightly on Cliff's jacket. "I'd like to know so I can give them to you personally."
"And you're in too, Gray. I'm tired of your grumpy attitude, and I think a few snowballs will definitely put you in the right frame of mind!"
Glaring darkly, Gray let go of Cliff's jacket, picked his hat up off the floor, and got up to head outside. He was sure his grandpa would have something for him to do, and that it would involve long periods in front of the forge. Right now, he'd take a bath in the Lake of Perdition, if it'd mean getting warm.
"Hmph. Some attitude. Sorry Mary, guess you'll have to join in some other time."
Five minutes later, Gray found himself behind a snow barricade, wondering how the hell he'd gotten roped into this stupid idea. Honestly, snowball fights were so immature, so juvenile, so...
...much fun to watch Cliff getting his...
Twenty feet away, another wall of snow had been set up, and from there Ann was hammering his would-be teammate with the bulk her team's ammunition. Mary, like Gray, seemed to be staying out of it for the most part, although she was still watching the action carefully. Gray knew that a carefully-aimed snowball would probably come from her direction at just the right moment, and that it would mark the turning point of the battle.
That is, assuming a turning point was needed. Ann's enthusiasm was overwhelming, and Cliff just didn't have the survival skills necessary to survive the assault.
Laughing openly at Cliff's gradual demise, Gray didn't notice the snowball arcing towards him until it was already too late. With a solid THWACK, his hat came clean off.
Cliff, turning to laugh at him in return, caught one of Ann's scorchers on the temple. With a surprised grunt, he went down like a ton of bricks.
"Enough! I give up! Stop shooting!" Gray came out from behind the barricade, hands in the air in the classic sign of surrender.
"You win. Please, no more."
Ann smiled maniacally, and Gray knew that his life was over.
"Sorry Gray, but surrender isn't an option! ROUND TWO! DEFEND YOURSELF!!!"
Within five seconds, a dozen snowballs were hurtling toward Gray's unprotected form. Mary, still hunkered behind her team's barricade, decided that the time had come to find the doctor.
And that brings us back to where we started, with Gray staring at the clinic's ceiling tiles and wondering how the hell he'd gotten roped into being a moving target for Ann's favorite winter sport.
Cliff had been placed elsewhere in the clinic, with Elli monitoring him until he regained conciousness. Ann had gone back to the inn to gloat about her victory, and the doctor was poking around in the medicine cabinet for some Turbojolt.
A blast of cold air indicated that the front door was opening, and when Gray turned to look, he saw Mary heading towards him, a small decorative box in her hands.
"I'm sorry about the snowball fight, Gray. I honestly forgot that Ann doesn't like to hold back."
Gray went back to counting the ceiling tiles. Mary sighed, and set the box on the bedside table.
"I wish you could look at the season with more enthusiasm, Gray. It isn't all about the cold and the work, you know."
Mary waited for a few more minutes while Gray continued to ignore her. Finally, she just decided to give him some space for a while, since it seemed like that was what he wanted.
The moment she was out the door, Gray sat up and opened the box. Inside was a plate's worth of gingerbread cookies, all of them shaped like baseball caps. And underneath the cookies, Gray found a small handwritten note.
Please don't forget your hat out there. It'll help you stay warm.
A panic ensued moments later, as a most unusual sound emanated from Gray's vicinity. Cliff, finally awake, only recognized it as Gray's laughter because that was the last thing he'd heard before Ann had turned off the lights.
For the rest of that winter, Gray made sure that he was in the library immediately after he'd finished shoveling snow. There he'd enjoy hot cocoa and Mary's very nice gingerbread cookies while safely out of range of the cold and ice.
Ann continued pummeling Cliff with snowballs at every opportunity(at least until he'd managed to start throwing them back more effectively), Gray regained a sense of joy in winter weather, and Mineral Town survived yet another winter without being completely snowed in.
And although Cliff got an arm broken when he'd raided Gray's cookie box, no one ever found the note that went with it.
Gray kept that in his hat, where he felt it rightfully belonged.