Tony didn’t give much thought to vegetables. He had no real opinion when asked by foodie friends, except a vague feeling that he wasn’t a fan of broccoli or cauliflower. And that was about as much consideration he gave to vegetables.
That all changed the day he was stuck on an airplane next to a woman watching a documentary on people who grow giant pumpkins for competition. At first he found the idea strange. Why would anyone do that? Then he started thinking that he could do that. In fact, he could definitely grow giant pumpkins, and grow them better than anyone else.
Except for the fact that Tony ran a small technology company based in Manhattan, where he couldn’t really grow a giant pumpkin in his apartment. Or so Pepper pointed out when he scooted furniture around his apartment exploring the possibility.
She hooked him up with a local community garden in Brooklyn, of all places. Unbelievably there was paperwork he had to fill out to get his plot of land. A lot of paperwork. Ridiculous, really.
“Do you even know what you’re doing?” Pepper asked over takeout dinner.
Tony glanced up from his laptop and noodles. “Yeah. How hard can it be really?”
“You’ve never even had a house plant.”
“Eh,” he shrugged. “I have instructions.”
He had in fact built a server to manage the huge amount of information he’d found about growing giant pumpkins. He had lists of the best seeds, reams of advice about watering and selecting promising vines and blooms, pest control, timelines for what to do and when, world pumpkin records, and galleries of pictures of pumpkins. And that was just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, of his gathered information.
The bump in the road to his pumpkin plan was that he had to interview with the local community garden manager before he was granted access to a small patch of land for his project. If he passed the interview, he was home free. Pepper only mentioned this several times when she reminded him about the interview.
He was going to ace the interview. He expected to meet a grizzly, elderly man in denim overalls and a baseball hat, covered in dirt and holding a hoe. He wouldn’t be asking many questions because he was only concerned if Tony was a real estate developer in disguise. He wouldn’t care about about Tony’s irrigation plans, which were not exactly according to the rules. This was going to be a cakewalk.
He got Steve instead.
Garden Manager Steve, who looked like a garden god, to be completely honest, with his gold hair and dirty, ripped t-shirt hinting at the built body underneath, looked over Tony’s extensive paperwork. He glanced up at Tony with piercing blue eyes and asked, “Giant pumpkins?”
“Yep,” Tony answered brightly. He was not going to be distracted by dazzling Steve, especially by the way he ran his hand through his thick, blond hair and hitched up the jeans falling off his hips as they talked. Even though Steve could make a mint by selling videos of him just standing around in tight jeans and a t-shirt filled with holes and tapping a pencil against his lips.
“What are your plans for your giant pumpkin?”
“Pumpkinfest in Oswego. It’s a weigh-off competition. You know, you got to get the timing right with sending the pumpkin in for a weigh-in ….”
“Okay!” Steve checked through the paperwork. “One final thing -- how are you planning to water your pumpkin patch? The other gardeners need water too.”
“I have a plan.” Tony had a plan all right -- he was going to build his own water tower for the pumpkin plus he could get a water delivery if it was really necessary. “See page 50 of the application,” he helpfully pointed out.
A little wrinkle appeared between Steve’s eyebrows -- not the last time Tony would ever see it -- as he read through Tony’s plans. “Oh, okay. You need to scale the water tower back by a foot. Look here -- I’m assigning you this plot.” He pointed out Tony’s plot on a laminated map of the garden. “Don’t do anything that interferes with what the other gardens are growing. If you do, you’re out.”
Tony could live with that.
Tony enlisted Pepper to help him transfer his small seedlings to the perfect little dirt mounds he’d made. He’d already started his specially ordered seeds in his apartment as the giant pumpkin experts recommended. He built his reservoir as planned. Things were going swimmingly.
Then he ran afoul of the community garden rules. Garden God Steve was waiting for Tony early on a Saturday, clipboard in hand, in his usual uniform of dirt-encrusted t-shirt and jeans. Tony wouldn’t ordinarily complain at all about the view, but he knew Steve wasn’t there to congratulate him on his thriving vines.
“Hey, Tony,” Steve greeted him. “I’ve been getting complaints about where you’ve been storing your tools.”
“I’ve been putting everything away in a shed.”
Steve looked down at his clipboard. “You’re supposed to use Shed 3 --”
“Fine. I’ll use Shed 3. Whichever that one is.”
His plot neighbor laughed when she saw Tony glare at Steve’s back. “It’d be chaos if Steve wasn’t looking out for us,” Natasha offered.
“Tools, Natasha, garden tools. I’ve labeled mine according to the rules -- it’s not that I’m doing anything different from everyone else --”
“Shed 3 is the gray one. Over there.”
“Wait, isn’t it the blue one there?” He pointed to the nearby shed.
Natasha shook her head and pointed to the gray shed on the other side of the garden. “Low guy on the totem pole gets the worst shed assignment.”
“Right.” Tony narrowed his eyes.
He immediately started negotiations for a better shed spot with Jessica, who worked a plot with her partner, Carol. He wasn’t particularly keen on throwing in the Home Depot gift certificates and a new phone, but Jessica proved to be a hard negotiator.
She did help out when Steve left him a string of tickets over his pest control methods. He complained to Jessica, “It’s not like I put in the laser grid, like I wanted.” Pepper had barely talked him out of it when she discovered his blueprints and list of parts.
Jessica laughed. “I would have liked to have seen that! But this is what Carol and I are doing.” She showed him her motion sensor sprinklers and chicken-wire fences and talked about various urine-based repellants. She thumped him on the back and said, “Give Steve a chance. We’d fall apart without him. Clint has horror stories of how things were run before Steve was elected Garden Manager.”
Tony still wasn’t sold on Steve. Admittedly, Steve was one hot man, and it’s not like Tony didn’t have the occasional fantasy about Steve while he weeded his plot. But he only really saw Steve when he broke a rule. That tended to take an edge off Steve’s overall hotness.
He got to know his garden neighbors well. Sam, the VA counselor on his left, tended his plot in the early morning before work. He admitted to Tony that this year he was being way too ambitious with attempting to grow corn. On Tony’s right, there was Jane, who taught astrophysics at Empire State and liked gardening, but admitted she wasn’t so good with it. She would show up late in the afternoon with her boyfriend Thor but get no gardening done.
Tony carefully tended his small patch. He checked the vines, selecting which vines to keep and which to cut off. He inspected the blooms, pinching off weak small blossoms so others would grow bigger. He evaluated the baby pumpkins, winnowing out the ones doing poorly and keeping the thriving ones. By late July, he had three pumpkins soaking up the sun, fertilizer, and water.
Just after 4th of July, Clint stopped by. “Anyone warn you about the dread zucchini troll?”
Looking up from the aluminum frame he was constructing as part of a sun shade, Tony asked skeptically, “Someone taunts zucchini?”
“No,” Clint replied, “They leave a bucket full of zucchini on your plot. Can’t do anything about it because no one knows where the buckets come from. Anyone could be a suspect. Except Steve. Steve would give his eye teeth to find that guy.”
“He wouldn’t do that?” Tony had his theories about the garden manager.
“He doesn’t grow zucchini. Actually he doesn’t grow vegetables at all.”
Clint led Tony to Steve’s plot. Tony thought that Steve, being the manager and all, would’ve picked the best plot. But no, he had the odd-shaped plot not far from the street, tucked into a corner near a dumpster and compost piles, a good distance from the tool sheds and the hoses. But Steve had planted flowers, tons of flowers here.
“It’s a cutting garden,” Clint explained. “Steve’s an artist in his spare time when he’s not here or at work.”
It was a tiny oasis of paradise with a clematis trailing over a trellis propped against the wall and geraniums, catmint and bee balm and flowers he had no name for in full bloom. Delphiniums and foxglove soared in colorful spikes over thick green foliage. Daylilies and daisies were close to blooming with their buds tight and full and low grasses were gracefully waving in the slight breeze. Steve even had a couple of rose bushes. The little garden was breathtaking. “I had no idea that this was here.”
Clint shrugged. “You have to know where to look.”
There was far more to Steve than Tony had suspected.
Rhodey, in for the weekend, surveyed Tony’s green, growing pumpkin kingdom. “Wow, Tones, when you said you were growing pumpkins this summer, I didn’t quite envision this.” He stared at the water reservoir, the complicated irrigation system of various pipes, the double wall of chicken wire, and the three pumpkins under an automatically retracting sun shade.
“Only the best for Shamu, Godzilla and, um, the other one,” Tony said.
“You named the pumpkins. Okay,” Rhodey said.
“Still working on a name for the last one. Moby Dick, maybe?”
“Hey, Tony,” Steve said, walking past with a wheelbarrow. He might as well as have been shirtless, considering how tight his shirt was. Tony could have stared at him all day long. Especially at his amazing ass.
“Um, hey, Steve.” Then he lost all control over his mouth. “This is my friend Rhodey. In from California. We were at MIT together, but he ran away to join the Air Force. And he’s in for the weekend. I’m showing him the pumpkins.” He had no idea how long he rambled on and on. Though Steve just smiled at him in return.
“Nice to meet you, Rhodey,” Steve said, shaking Rhodey’s hand.
“Nice garden set-up you have here,” Rhodey said. “My grandmom works at a community garden in Philly so I grew up pulling weeds all summer long.”
“You never said anything about that,” Tony said accusingly.
“You aren’t listening to anything that doesn’t have the words ‘giant’ and ‘pumpkin’ right now,” Rhodey pointed out.
“I am not obsessed about pumpkins.” There had to be a perfectly good reason that Pepper hung up on him after he talked about pumpkins for a few minutes. Pepper was a busy woman. Although it might have been an hour. Or three. He had a lot of news about his pumpkins.
“Steve, Tony and I are going out for drinks -- want to join us?” Rhodey asked.
Steve paused a minute, giving Tony an inscrutable look. He put down the wheelbarrow. “Sure, but I need to clean up first.”
“Meet us here,” Rhodey said, showing Steve his phone. A few texts later, Steve was on his way with Rhodey’s directions and a time to meet them.
Once Steve was out of sight, Rhodey smugly turned to Tony. “You owe me.”
“I’ll name a pumpkin after you.”
At the bar, Tony didn’t see Steve at first, but he recognized Sam -- he couldn’t mistake that laugh anywhere. But once he saw Steve, he was shocked how much Steve looked like a model straight from a photoshoot. It didn’t help much when a laughing Rhodey jokingly pushed Tony's jaw up as Steve and Sam joined them. Steve didn’t make it any better when he gave Tony a beautiful, shy smile as he sat down.
Tony had no idea Steve and Sam were friends. Steve had brought Sam because they had plans to go out that night already. They had met in ROTC at Empire State and stayed in touch over the years. Sam got Steve involved in the garden when he moved back to New York. With a new audience that understood what he was talking about, Rhodey was over the moon, even if Steve had been Army.
Steve was funny, smart and perfect in every way that mattered. Completely different from the guy who reminded Tony that he had to follow the rules about no electric fences last week. Steve was sitting close enough that when someone bumped into him, Steve brushed up against Tony. Tony wasn't going to complain about that at all.
He was getting on with Steve like a house on fire, and the evening flew by. But Steve had work in the morning and Tony had to get ready for a business trip. They exchanged numbers as they left. Tony’s big, silly smile didn’t waver even as Rhodey teased Tony the whole ride back.
Things were looking up.
Tony had never been more wrong in his life. One short trip to California for a few days to promote his business, and he came back to vine-borer devastation in his pumpkin patch and a disappeared Steve. He wasn’t sure which bothered him more.
He hadn’t heard from Steve after the night in the bar like he thought he would. They had hit it off, exchanged a few texts the next day, and it looked like clear sailing from there. It wasn’t like he was drawing hearts with Steve’s name as he doodled in meetings. But he wondered what went wrong. Rhodey had no idea either.
Then Tony had a frantic fight on his hands with vine borers. He’d been warned and he should have been prepared. He won. But at the cost of losing Godzilla and Rhodey Junior. All his hopes were now pinned on Shamu.
Sam stopped by while Tony tended to Shamu. “How’s it going?”
He shrugged. “The damage is done.” He side-eyed Sam, a dozen questions on his lips.
“Steve is out of town, if that’s what you wanted to ask,” Sam offered. “He’ll be back soon.”
“I don’t need any reprimands for putting pumpkins in the compost --”
Sam actually laughed. “Steve wouldn’t do that. He’s lot more flexible about the rules than you think.”
They were quiet for a few minutes then Sam said, “Hey, just a warning here, Tony,” Sam started.
Tony turned to face a suddenly serious Sam. “About what?”
“Steve. He’s been going through a rough time over the past few months and doesn’t need any bullshit.” Sam clapped his shoulder. “I might not be reading this right. But I think you could be really good for him.”
“I think you have it wrong --”
“He can’t stop talking about you, Tony. Steve keeps his cards close to his chest. He’s a great guy if you have the patience,” Sam said. “Give him a chance.”
Tony had his doubts about Steve. He’d been down the ‘give someone a chance’ path before with people who turned out to be jerks. All he knew about Steve was that everyone in the garden loved him. Which didn’t mean that Steve was boyfriend material.
Pepper would have called it stalking if she’d caught Tony looking up everything he could find on Steve. Tony called it research. And for what it was worth, he didn’t order a full background check on the guy.
Steve turned out to be an all-American hero, decorated for service in Afghanistan and classified operations. Tony found a handful of articles about gallery shows Steve had had since he left the army, including an MFA show at Empire State. He unearthed a short article about Steve pulling together the community garden after a contentious couple of years of a Johann Schmidt nearly running the garden into the ground. Tony also found the obituary for Steve’s mom. All of which probably explained a lot about what Sam told him about Steve.
Studying a picture of a smiling Steve next to a large canvas of wildflowers, Tony saw how impressive Steve really was. Steve hadn’t mentioned a single thing about his past to Tony. And Steve had been full of praise for Tony when they’d gone out to the bar. All he could think about was Steve’s soft, shy smiles for him. Like that time Tony showed off his pumpkins to Steve.
Then It hit him like a ton of bricks. He should have started putting blankets on Shamu two weeks ago. The blankets were needed to protect the pumpkin and foster continued growth. And the nights were getting colder.
The webcam he set up had helped -- he could check on Shamu whenever he wanted to. But it wasn’t the same if he couldn’t tinker with Shamu’s support systems and pat his growing pumpkin, rapidly closing in over 400 pounds, according to his estimates. He’d done so well and now had forgotten one of the more important steps.
Convinced that Shamu had already died from his neglect, Tony hustled to Brooklyn. When he got there, he found Shamu covered in blankets, and Steve sitting in a plastic chair with a bottle of beer, contemplating Shamu’s magnificence under the city lights and twinkling evening stars.
“Steve?” Tony asked.
“Beer?” Steve asked, gesturing at the cooler at his feet.
Confused, and still in his designer suit, Tony sat in the plastic chair next to Steve. Steve twisted the cap off a bottle and handed it to Tony. “What? How?” he stammered out.
“I got back home a few days ago,” Steve said. “If it matters, Sam and I have been looking after Shamu the past couple of nights. Sam told me you were busy at work.”
“That doesn’t --”
Steve sheepishly glanced at Tony. “I, um, sometimes hang out in the garden at night. When everyone is gone. To sketch.” Tony noticed the large sketchbook propped up against Steve’s chair.
“Right. With beer.”
“Sometimes.” Steve smiled. “I should have texted, but I was called out of town.”
“Emergency?” Tony waited for the rejection. It always started this way.
Steve swallowed and looked down at his dirt-encrusted sneakers. “My friend Bucky -- he was a Marine sniper. He ran over an IED and was nearly killed. I went down to DC to see him now that he’s back in the country. It’s, um, a messy situation.”
Tony felt a knot grow in his stomach. He’d been down this road before, with ‘it’s not you - I want to get back together with my ex.’ Now that he found out Steve was a fantastic person, he might lose any chance with him.
“I’ve been friends with Bucky since we were kids,” Steve continued. “He’s got a long recovery ahead of him. But he’ll be okay.”
“I guess if Bucky’s back, then you’ll want to --” The words were killing Tony.
Steve looked at him strangely. “Oh -- wait -- do you think I’m dating Bucky?”
“It sounds like --”
“Tony, I’m trying to explain why I didn’t text you.” Steve shook his head. “Bucky’s my closest friend.”
“So you are … interested?”
“God, yes. I’ve been interested in you since I saw you put together that automatic sunshade. Then everyone kept telling me what a great guy you are. I hoped I hadn’t blown my chance with you.”
The evening had taken a swerve to the better, and Tony quietly rejoiced. “Really? What did people say about me? Hopefully how devastatingly intelligent I am.” Tony wriggled out of his suit coat, which Steve helped drape over the back of the chair.
Steve reached out and took Tony’s hand. “You have no idea, you great big goof.”
Tony drank his beer, his hand warm in Steve’s large hand. It wasn’t possible Steve could be more handsome, but his face shone under the lights in way that made Tony’s stomach flutter, and his eyes were only for Tony.
“We have all night.”
“Yes. We do.”
They talked into the night, watching the pumpkin, drinking Steve’s beer, Tony’s head on Steve’s shoulder. Eventually they spent more time kissing than talking. Steve already had a way of making Tony light-headed with a single touch.
But the evening had to end. Tony dropped Steve off at his apartment. “So we’re good?” asked Steve through the window.
“You could be a keeper. Although Shamu might rate higher.” Tony kissed Steve on his nose.
“I could live with that. Shamu is an extraordinary giant pumpkin.” Steve pressed a final goodnight kiss to his lips.
“You can’t complain about coming in second to a pumpkin like that.”
“No, I can’t.” Steve squeezed his hand. “See you tomorrow?”
“You bet. Only a month and a half to go before the weigh-off, and you’re my garden guy.”
The other community members and Pepper threw Tony a surprise party when they returned from the Pumpkinfest weigh-off with a ninth-place finish. They cheered as loudly as if he had been the overall winner. Tony blushed fiercely as he was congratulated, especially when he saw Steve beaming proudly at him.
Later, Steve draped his arm over Tony’s shoulder. “Going to try again next year?”
“Don’t know. I was pretty lucky for a rookie. Could be I’ll have a sophomore slump.” Tony had already started sketching out plans for improvement. He knew he could do better.
Steve tugged him close and kissed the top of his head. “Gardening is hard, Tony. You did great.”
“Well, this year I got a participation ribbon and a boyfriend,” Tony said with a smile. “Imagine what I can do next year.”