Celestia's sun was almost at its noon perch, shedding the last of summer's heat like a nuisance. The plants were slowly but surely straightening back from the months of oppression, their animal neighbors adjusting to the changing food sources. The wind was still blowing mildly, tossing the manes of the gathered ponies as if still deciding which way they were to be ruined. Such a relaxed and measured part of the day would only mean one thing:
Neither of the competitors swayed with the breeze. Caramel's hair was long since flattened into strands and slick with sweat. Big Macintosh's hair was even more haggered than Caramel's, hanging in front of his glasses and obscuring his vision. The irony wasn't lost on either of them...but they truly didn't care. They couldn't even understand the crowd anymore. All they understood was the cloud of dread fogging both their minds.
The pain, the rage, and the fear born in the pair wavered and persisted with the straining hooves. Either one of them might have said that time stood still...but what truly held their thoughts was the mirrored anguish in the eyes of the other. No matter how much it flew in the face of reason...it hurt like all six hells to see the pony so miserable.
So much had changed, yet so much had stayed the same; it was clear now. How could any of it be real? How could the horrible mess they were in have come to be in less than a week?
...And did the other even understand just what he had done?
“How in Equestria did you manage to get that letter? That was a--”
“Doesn't matter,” snapped Big Macintosh. “Ah got it, an' Ah saw whut you hid from me. Why'd you do it?”
“First of all,” started Caramel, “Lemme make it clear I didn't ask my dad to shoe me. I...nnngh!...asked a professional blacksmith to do it because he's the--”
“Stop right there,” Mac interrupted again. “Ah don' even wanna know. Tell me why you lied t'me about yer daddy shoein' you.”
Mel used his free hoof to try (and fail) to wipe the hair from his eyes.
“...I'll tell you why I lied to you when you tell me where you got that letter.”
Mac chuckled through gnashing teeth.
“Yer a real piece o' work, you know that? Ah see it now. Jus' manipulate yer target 'till he caves, don' bother t'be responsible or nothin'.”
Mel visibly sagged behind the stump, but kept his hoof strong against his opponent's.
“I-I guess there's...,” mumbled Caramel before pulling himself up, “no point in being nice, then. Tell me where you got that letter.”
“Look at yerself, hon. Yer in no position t'make demands,” Gnashing Macintosh insisted.
“Well, neither are you,” countered Caramel with a glare to Junebug. She seemed at a loss for words, or really anything.
Big Macintosh deliberately maintained his own glare on him, not saying a thing. The eyes of the crowd couldn't prick them if they tried.
“It was Twilight, wasn't it?”
That made him stop. The treacherous pony actually faltered, just a little.
“Ah said it doesn't matter.”
“Like hells it doesn't matter!”, yelled Caramel for anypony to hear. “That was private mail! Nopony should have had access to it but my doctor. But that nosy egghead was sneaking around us for weeks doing her 'research'! She would manage to get it, wouldn't she?!”
The crowd looked around them to find Twilight, but she was nowhere to be seen. Eventually, Caramel took a deep breath and conceded.
“It doesn't matter that I didn't tell you. That pony's just a blacksmith to me.”
“Oh, don' you even dare pull that with me,” retorted Macintosh. “He's yer daddy...bless yer heart. He's th' one who shoved nails in yer...gah!...jus' thinkin' 'bout it makes me ill.”
Mel gained ground on Mac.
“It's the truth, babe. I just...didn't trust anypony else to do it, and why would I? I mean, think about it!”
Mac stopped the advance at one hundred and thirty degrees above the stump.
“Ah cain't. Ah cain't even imagine...whut made you put yer trust in him. Ah don' git that at all.”
“Hmph,” grunted Caramel. “I guess you'll believe what you want anyway. You're good at that.”
“T'ain't an explanation,” grunted Macintosh, “fer why you went Behind! Mah! Back! and snuck him in t'shoe you without even tellin' me after. Jus'...why, babe?! Didja think Ah wuz gonna—”
The hooves returned to equilibrium. The breeze blew stronger than before, and the crowd was muted to the barest sound above silence.
“...Like Ah said. Unbelievable. You really thought Ah woulda killed somepony?”
“...You're scary when you're mad. Really scary. Or at least to somepony who's actually scared of you,” Caramel added sourly.
“Th-That wuz all jus' big talk, you silly pony!”
“Hah!”, spat Caramel. “If you were a normal pony, then it would have just been big talk. YOU, on the other hoof, aren't so typical. You're all eeyups and nnopes one second and threatening my kin the next!”
Macintosh lost ground to Caramel. He was surprisingly able to ignore the bruises Caramel had given him.
“Yer kin?!,” blustered Macintosh. “You still see him as yer KIN?! He doesn't deserve th' dirt he walks on! Do Ah hafta even MENTION how ruined yer life? Do Ah?
“An' look at you, defendin' him AGAIN. Sweet Celestia, he's got you under his hoof. Ah don' need t'be a clever pony t'know you jus' REVERSED whut you said before--an' Ah cain't even THINK about whut that says 'bout him or you, not now.”
The wind grew stronger, managing to ruffle a few sweaty strands of their manes. It was uncomfortably hot.
“...Then don't,” countered Caramel. “Instead, maybe you should think about what that speech you just gave says about YOU.”
Spike coughed into the microphone. The entire crowd was peering at Big Macintosh; Caramel didn't even have to see them to know that.
“Fine! Ah admit Ah had some evil thoughts...everypony does it! But it wuz mostly jus' wantin' t'protect you, an' you KNEW that. You had no good reason not t'tell me.”
As the wind blustered and battered them both, the heartbroken lovers re-ignited their fury and wrestled each other with even more ferocity.
“N-Now it seems t-the contestants are going all out!”, said Spike. “This has to be the longest hoof wrestling on record...good grief..."
“Well, would you have let...aagh!...let me do it if I told you? And don't bother lying.”
Caramel lost ground to Macintosh. He couldn't help but wince once he saw the bruises on his opponent's leg.
“Ah don' rightly know. Ah do know Ah wouldn't wanta do this if'n you did! Look at me...you-nngh!...you did this to me!”
Mel stopped the advance at sixty degrees above the stump. He said nothing.
"I-I would ask the contestants to keep their qualms to themselves, though...it's offputting, t-to say the least.”
They stopped and glared at the judge through sweat-drenched hair.
Some of the crowd began to nervously leave the arena, the others too scared to move.
“An' Ah don' buy that hooey 'bout you...gah!...thinkin' yer daddy's not yer daddy or whutever. Ah don' believe yer that sick. Don' ask me why, Ah jus' don'.”
“I said what I meant and meant what I said, dahling. Just like you always do.”
“AH NEVER ACTUALLY MEANT TA...you know whut? It don' matter none. Ah trusted you, an' then you pulled this.”
“So you don't trust me?”, scoffed Caramel. “I suppose we're in the same boat, then. I trusted you, and then you ran off with some mare who might not even like you back! So...tell me. Does she?”
They both looked to the crowd: Junebug was gone, and so were her flowers.
“That's th' stupidest...look, nothin' happened, alright?”, admitted Macintosh, his fury weakening slightly. “Ah jus'...needed a break.”
The midday sun stopped directly above them, banishing the barest trace of a shadow to the Hell of Apathy.
“...Just what?”, said Caramel. “Just what?!”
“You heard me, traitor.” He felt his bile rise again. “You heard me loud an' clear!”
“I don't think – no, I don't think I did! Speak clearly now!”
The unsteady stalemate broke, wavering unpredictably between right and left. Their hooves scraped and tore into each other without rhyme or reason, getting closer and closer to what could only be an all-out brawl until--
“I'd like to point out,” shouted a reporter pony from the bleachers, “that everything being said here is going to be on record. I normally wouldn't say this, but if you two don't want any undue attention...”
The two slowed down dramatically, breaking their stare to pay attention to the straw-colored mare. She didn't seem deterred in the slightest.
“...then you two should watch what you say from here on out.”
Their lips wisely clamped shut; but it made no difference. Their wordless faces illustrated the story their minds were narrating scornfully. They were done talking, and so was the crowd as the visibly exhausted hooves restarted the mission to break each other.
The wind stopped.
Ah...Ah jus' needed a break. It's not easy bein' with you sometimes. That's all.
What the hells kind of response is that? You didn't answer my question at all.
Ah did answer yer question. Nothin' happened, period.
Why should I believe nothing happened? I have no reason to; you didn't even read my letter! What else am I supposed to think, that your tastes suddenly flipped?!
Ah done told you everythin' you need t'know. Ah told you th' truth.
If you told me the truth, prove it. Tell me what you did do with her.
Big Macintosh softened his lips from the grimace, but said nothing.
I knew it. I knew it since the cult came to town! You dirty cheater; who's the traitor now?!
Yer thinkin' Ah'm th' traitor now, aren't you? T'ain't th' same thing, an' you know it!
I can not believe you did that. And to think you were too scared to go all the way when we--
DON' LOOK AT ME LIKE THAT, AH...Ah dunno! Maybe somethin' happened, maybe it didn't; Ah dunno anymore! Now jus' give up, lemme win, an' Ah'll drop mah whole vendetta here.
Big Macintosh doesn't make vendettas like this. He's better than that.
Well, it seems Caramel ain't above betrayal. So why should Ah be above revenge in this competition?
I bet you think it's my fault you wanted revenge.
...You changed me. Ah wuz good before Ah met you. Ah held back, Ah waited mah turn, Ah never swore, Ah never lost mah temper, an' Ah didn't doubt who Ah wuz. You ruined me, Shine.
...That's rich. I ruined you? Like you didn't destroy me at that damn stadium?!
Oh, fer t'love of—yer still on that? That wuz MONTHS ago.
It might as well have been yesterday!
Big Macintosh looked toward Applebloom, who had her head buried in Applejack's shoulder.
Look, you brat. Yer not th' only one t'ever be embarrassed. That damn paper Bloom an' 'em did put th' whole town--
The Foalfree Express Debacle? How would that match up to...
Caramel looked toward the barn.
...oh. OH! So THAT'S where I saw it before!
Both of them grimaced.
That ugly doll! I saw your picture in the paper with that doll! I thought I was delirious from rainwater or something.
...You, you didn't...stop that! Y-You cain't think that 'bout Patches! You never gave her a chance! She ain't done nothin' wrong, an' she ain't ugly!
...Mac. Hon. It's hideous. It needs to be replaced.
You are NEVER gonna replace Patches. Nopony could ever replace her; don' even think 'bout it, traitor.
Well...then let's 'repair' it. That doll could really sure some 'repair'.
It's too late t'repair her now, not that Ah wanted ta! She got torn up by some monster an' laid in front o' mah...
Caramel looked directly to Big Macintosh's bedroom and grinned. Big Macintosh gaped.
...Ah knew it.
Caramel waggled his eyebrows as he beamed.
AH KNEW IT WUZ YOU. SHE HAD SCUFF MARKS FROM YER FUCKIN' SHOES. THAT...that does it. Ah'm done with you.
Macintosh's glare broke, falling into a deep, exhausted frown.
Ah cain't do this, Ah jus' cain't. Yer not th' pony Ah fell in love with anymore. Maybe you never were.
W-what?! No! I'm the one who gets to break it off, not you!
Takes two t'tango, babe. An' mah legs are bone tired.
That's not how...w-we're really...finished, then?
We're really finished.
I...good! Good riddance! I can't deal with this either!
Yer not welcome in mah house, or near mah family fer that matter.
Nor you mine!
They both laid their hooves down on the long since broken wood and sluggishly rubbed their front legs with the opposite. After a while, they both walked up to Spike with stomachs caked in mud, molded fresh from old earth and new sweat. Caramel Shine thought of Paradise. Big Macintosh thought of caramel-covered daisies and how he could never eat them again for as long as he lived.
Their faces could only have been blank.
“It...”, said Spike shakily, “it seems the hoof wrestling is a mutual forfeit. With the scores as they are, this Iron Pony Competition has no winner.”
The crowd was breathless. Spike soundlessly checked his watch.
“Ah-Ah did read yer letter, by th' way,” Mac offered as an afterthought, keeping his face forward. “But it's clear t'ain't important now.”
“...I suppose not.”
“So...?”, said Caramel.
“Eeyup,” said Big Macintosh.
Tick. Ba-dum. Ba-dum.
“...I'll just go then,” announced Caramel. His spent legs used their last ounce of strength to carry him toward home.
“Bye...”, said Spike.
The silver medals laid half-buried in the upturned soil. They were dull.
The gold trophy sitting next to Spike glared sunlight in Big Macintosh's eyes. He half-wished it had blinded him.