It took Tony a few minutes to convince Annie that, no, he was not putting her on – he really knew Brad Pitt. Of course, then he had to admit that it wasn't exactly the same Brad Pitt she was thinking of, but that was part of the fun. Though the flight from DC to Columbus wasn't a long one, it helped pass the time.
Stacey's parents met them at the airport. Tony had met them while he and Stacey were together, and they'd seemed like pretty cool people. They'd even given Tony and Stacey the same room together when they stayed the night. Tony had been a bit surprised, but Stacey's father had shrugged and said, "Saves you the trouble of sneaking to each other's rooms in the middle of the night."
"Grandma! Grandpa!" Annie ran over to embrace her grandparents, who instantly smothered her.
"Thank goodness you're safe, darling." Stacey's mother released Annie, but still held onto her hand. "Welcome back, Stacey."
"Thanks, Mom." Stacey smiled, hugging her mother and then her father. "You guys remember Tony, don't you?"
"Of course we do." Stacey's father reached out to shake Tony's hand. "How have you been?"
Tony gave them his most winning smile. Even though they'd been nothing but delightful when he was with Stacey, he still felt like he had to impress them. "I'm good, Mr. Fuller; thank you. How about yourself?"
The older man waved a dismissive hand. "Oh, you know, a little of this, a little of that. Can't complain if I'm still breathing. And I told you before, the name's Mark."
Stacey's mother reached out to clasp one of Tony's hands in both of hers. "It's so good to see you again, Tony. And don't even think of calling me 'ma'am.' I'm Sophie, just like always."
Tony found it somewhat amazing that they were welcoming him like an old friend, considering that he had only spent a handful of nights in their company, but he supposed being Annie's father did count for something. "It's good to see you, too."
Mark leaned in, telling Tony not-so-quietly, "I always did tell Stace she was making a mistake by not calling you after you left here."
Stacey had the grace to look embarrassed. "Dad!"
"What?" Mark shrugged. "It's true."
"See, Mom, I told you." Annie's voice held all the confidence that could be afforded a teenager who knew she was right.
"Fine, fine." Stacey shook her head, looking flustered. "I screwed up. I'm well aware of that by now. Can we go get the bags, please?"
As they made their way across the concourse to baggage claim, Sophie fell into step beside Tony. "We're so glad you were able to make the trip. I know all these changes must be so sudden for you."
That was putting it mildly, but Tony played it cool, like he always did. "I'm used to surprises in my line of work. Most of them aren't as good as this one. Annie's a great kid."
Sophie laughed. "We think so, too, though we don't get to see her nearly as often as we'd like these days." She shot a pointed look in her daughter's direction.
Stacey rolled her eyes. "Mom, you can't blame me for Lance's decisions." Tony recalled her having a less contentious relationship with her parents before, but he wasn't surprised that Lance would have put a strain on that. Best to cut his victims off from those who would support them.
"No, but I didn't raise you to be any man's doormat, either," Sophie insisted. "Where's your spunk?"
Tony had been asking the same question, but he kept his mouth shut.
Stacey sighed heavily, plucking her smaller bag off the conveyer belt. "It's complicated."
"So are a lot of things." Annie helped Stacey pull the larger suitcase off the belt. "Just tell him, he was the last one in, so he can be the first one out."
Stacey elbowed her gently. "Someday you'll understand relationships and you'll see it's not as easy as you think."
Annie looked away, disdainful. "No one's going to treat me like crap again."
Tony hooked Annie into a one-armed hug. "Darn right." He was rewarded by an affectionate smile. Reluctantly, Tony let go and moved to take Stacey's monster suitcase; he and Annie only had their carry-on luggage.
Stacey's cell phone rang while they were walking to the car. She fished it out of her purse. "I've got to get this; it's Lance."
"Lance, Lance, stinky pants," Annie chanted in a low tone, then burst into giggles.
Stacey made a shushing noise. "What, you're five now?"
"Six," Annie told Tony, very seriously. "Just like in Calvin and Hobbes."
"A diabolical genius with an overactive imagination," Tony mused. "I can live with that."
Stacey had stepped away from the group to have her conversation with Lance, and Tony glanced her way. She had her back turned toward them, but he could still hear her without straining. "Yes, my parents got us... No, that's okay; I know you're busy."
Busy doing what, Tony wondered. Annie had told him that due to Lance's "personal issues," he didn't deal well with the stresses of regular employment. Instead he sold stuff on eBay. He bought things from garage sales and marked them up, then listed them. Tony knew a lot of people tried to make a living doing that, but apparently it wasn't that hot a source of income in this economy. Stacey's job paid well enough that Lance never had to work that hard, and both Annie and Tony suspected the main reason he tried to be so controlling of Stacey was that he didn't want to lose his gravy train. It was another reason – apart from the physical evidence, or lack thereof – that Tony was sure Lance had never served in the military. He seemed to have no work ethic of which to speak.
After Stacey apologized for something for the fifth time in under two minutes, Annie rolled her eyes and pantomimed strangling somebody. Tony was grateful Annie had the kind of self-esteem and spirit that let her recognize she wasn't the one in the wrong. It had taken her a few years, but she finally had enough and drew the line. Tony only wished he could wave a magic wand and have Stacey come to the same place. She knew in her head that the relationship was toxic, but her heart still had doubts. It wasn't a good position to be in, Tony knew. He had been at that point with Wendy, years ago. She hadn't been outright abusive but the relationship had been over for awhile by the time they both let it go.
Tony loaded the bags into the trunk of Mark and Sophie's car and pretended not to listen in on the tail end of Stacey's conversation. She was beginning to sound irritated, which Tony took as a good sign. "Lance. I am having dinner with my parents, then I will be home." She frowned. "I've already talked to Annie." A frustrated sigh followed. "She's not military, Lance. Listen, I'll be home soon. We'll make dinner quick. Did you want to meet us at the restaurant?" No one in the group looked happy about that suggestion. "Okay, then. I'll bring you something home. I love you. Bye."
There was an awkward silence after Stacey hung up, which lasted several moments before Mark opened the car door. "Well, then. Since it sounds like we're going to get our meal in peace, let's hurry up and get to it."
Tony wasn't sure what to expect when they pulled up to Stacey's house. It was an unassuming two-story home on a cul-de-sac, and the only thing that set it apart from the neighboring houses was that it was light blue. All the houses on the circle were painted in pastel shades, "like giant Easter eggs," according to Annie.
The plan was for Tony to go inside with Stacey and Annie to lend a little moral support while Stacey told Lance things had to change. Tony might or might not get the chance to give Lance a piece of his mind, then Stacey would give him a ride to his hotel. If Lance let her. Tony had the number to a cab company in his cell phone, just in case. They would see how things unfolded. Tony didn't expect miracles, but he did want to see progress.
Lance was not as imposing a man as Tony had expected. He was a little less than six feet tall, and it was pretty apparent he'd never actually been a SEAL from his physique. He'd probably insist he had let himself go. The man wasn't obese, but he was plumper than Tony would have expected from a man who loved to talk up his "glory days." He was balding, with hair cropped close to hide it, and he crossed his arms over his chest, glaring as soon as he saw Tony. "Who the hell are you?"
"Very Special Agent Tony DiNozzo, NCIS." Though it killed him to do it, Tony offered a handshake. He wasn't disappointed when Lance didn't take it.
"What the hell's NCIS got to do with my family?" Lance asked. "I haven't been in for a long time."
The DiNozzos were nothing if not masters of bullshit, and Tony laid it on, figuring Lance hadn't done intense research on NCIS' jurisdiction. If Lance believed his own lies after all these years, he might buy it. If he didn't, it might push him into admitting he never served. "Well, yes, but once you've been in, if there are allegations of mistreatment of a minor, we're obliged to investigate."
"What mistreatment?" Lance scowled. "Annie, what lies have you been telling these people?" He looked back at Tony. "The girl exaggerates. She doesn't like it when I have to be the authority around here while Stacey's gone." His death glare turned to Stacey. "Why'd you even let him come all the way out here for this? I don't want to waste NCIS' valuable time."
"The man's got to do his job," Stacey said, her tone perfectly calm. "Besides, he has as much of a right to Annie as we do." So she was going for bold. Tony kind of liked this.
Lance's eyes narrowed. "What'd you say your name was again, Agent?"
"DiNozzo," Tony said, James Bond-style. "Anthony DiNozzo."
Lance laughed, a bitter sound. "Oh, I see." He nodded. "I get it. You feel responsible for her now because she told you her story." He was obviously trying to sound reasonable, but Tony wasn't biting. "I promise you, she's fine here. Sometimes teenagers will be teenagers, you know, and I've got to come down on her. Tough love. I'm sure your dad did the same thing."
If tough love meant sending one's child to military school, then Senior certainly had. But no way was Tony telling this asshole that. "This isn't about me." He had to play the nice-guy card at first, as much as he wanted to kick Lance's ass. "Sometimes, there's a line between a lecture and tearing a kid apart. Maybe you get a little too emotional and cross it sometimes. But there's absolutely no reason you should ever hit her."
Lance snorted. "You know, that's part of the reason society's getting so namby-pamby these days. No one believes in spanking a child anymore."
"First of all, a teenager is a little old for spanking." Tony stared Lance down. "Even if you disagree, I think I can definitively say that picking someone up by the front of their shirt and slamming them up against the wall isn't spanking. That's what we at NCIS like to refer to as assault." He took a step forward, lowering his voice to a dangerous tone. A quick assessment had revealed Lance wasn't going to cooperate. "Remember, Lance, I've seen your service file. I know all your secrets." It worked perfectly, whether Lance had rewritten history in his mind or not. Tony was onto him, and he was no longer shy about letting Lance know it. "And if you ever lay one finger on my daughter again..."
"Whoa, buddy!" Lance took a couple of steps back. "Where do you get off playing daddy? You've been a non-person in this kid's life since she's been born!"
"That may be." Tony didn't back off. "However, now that I'm here, I'm not going anywhere." He took another step forward, trying to push his luck. "So you can get used to seeing a lot of me."
They were only about a foot apart now, and Lance pushed Tony away. "Get out of my face."
In a quick move, Tony grabbed Lance's arm, spun him around, and put him on the ground. So much for SEAL reflexes.
"What the hell is your problem?" Lance struggled to get free.
"Oh, sorry." Tony let go and stepped away. "Gut reaction. You were coming perilously close to assault on a federal agent and I'm trained to protect myself. You know how it is."
"You're lucky I don't deck you," Lance threatened, "coming here and insulting me and my family this way. Stacey, tell this guy to get the hell out of here."
"I would love for you to hit me right now." Any pain Tony suffered would have been more than worth it for the chance to defend himself.
"Stacey!" Lance's tone was sharp.
"I'm sorry, Tony," Stacey said, looking sheepish. "You're not exactly catching Lance at his best. I'm sure he's been worried about Annie."
"That's okay," Tony played along – at least he hoped Stacey was playing at something and not actually escorting him to the door. "I'm worried about her, too." He moved toward the door, and Stacey stepped in close.
"I'll talk to him tonight," she murmured. "I'll tell him he has to change."
"What the hell are you telling him, Stacey?" Lance asked. "How many words does your over-educated brain need to say, 'get out'?"
Tony looked into Stacey's eyes, then Annie's. He hoped Stacey had grown a backbone. This wasn't the end of this conversation. "I'll check in with you in the morning. I'm gonna catch a cab to the rental car place and I'll take you to school tomorrow, kid."
"Cool!" Annie stepped forward to hug Tony, and he was quick to reciprocate.
"We can talk more tomorrow," Tony said, directing his words to both Stacey and Lance.
"Don't count on it," Lance growled.
"Oh, actually, you sure can." Tony waved and stepped out the door, hoping cab response times had gotten quicker in Columbus than they'd used to be. He called his cab, then wandered toward the sidewalk to wait.
Tony had Annie's cell phone number, and he would give her a call as soon as he got to his hotel to see how Stacey's talk with Lance was going. It was nice having a spy on the inside.