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The new support requests waiting for them were somewhat worrying, but with Tio back, the Special Support Section was in high spirits and ready for the day. Certainly, today was the day of the Trade Conference, and they'd have to be extremely careful, which added some nervous feelings all around. Still, checking the terminal with Tio in lead just felt right somehow, and Lloyd smiled as he watched his group discussing the requests.

"We do have some time in the morning," Elie commented as they finished reading the requests list. "So we could look into these."

Noel nodded. "And we can use the car to stop by the outskirts too if needed."

Right, the car; this would be Tio's first time using it. "Car...?" Tio replied. "I'm looking forward to it." Perhaps she didn't look very excited, but under her usual calm demeanor, Lloyd could tell she really meant it. "I heard it was developed by the ZCF?"

"Yeah, it's a new model. It's amazing and puts the Section One cars to shame," Randy replied. "Got seats for the whole team!"

"Crazy comfortable and fast, and on top of that, customizable!" Noel chimed in, excited as ever. "And we can get custom paint on it--"

At that very second, Noel stopped mid-sentence and everyone froze, and Lloyd blinked as it dawned on him.

They had all completely forgotten about the car's current paint scheme.

* * * * * * * *

About a week earlier...

 

The sight of Randy lying on the lobby sofas was nothing out of the ordinary, and neither were the magazines he was reading. "Heeeyyy, Lloyd," he called, leaning back and waving his hand at him. "Come take a look at this!"

It was definitely going to be yet another gravure picture that he just really wanted to show him, Lloyd thought as he sighed and made it over to the sofa. "Put those magazines away this instant. We have discussed this," he stated in an imperturbable tone of voice. "These magazines stay in your room. KeA could see them. Now put that-- What is that, even?"

At that point, Randy had managed to stick the picture in his face, and Lloyd picked up the magazine then took another look at it and sighed. As expected, there was a picture of a girl in a swimsuit. ...Posing next to several pictures of a car that had pictures of an equally scantily clad girl painted on it. "What do you say," Randy suggested. "We should put this on the car next!"

"Not a chance," Lloyd replied, giving Randy an unimpressed stare. "Rather, you're painting a picture of a half-naked girl on our car over my dead body. Think of what the girls would... say," he added, only now realizing Noel had wandered closer.

"Mmm, agreed, nope. That's a little too tacky," she said, peering at the image on the magazine from Lloyd's side. "This does remind me of something I just saw the other day though," she added, appearing thoughtful for a bit. "Oh yeah, now I remember. Let me go get the magazine!" With that, she vanished upstairs before Lloyd managed to react in any way.

Elie stepped closer as well. "Lloyd. Put that away right now, KeA's in the kitchen, she could come out and see that."

"That's what I was telling Randy," Lloyd tried but then just sighed and closed the magazine, handing it back to Randy. "This goes back to your room and stays there."

There was a fake insulted look on Randy's face. "Whatever the leader says," he replied as he put the magazine onto the table, dragging another magazine to cover it, if barely. "Wouldn't be the first time she sees my stuff, so what's the point?"

"Sees what?" Came a cheerful voice from behind then, and Lloyd and Elie turned to look at KeA who was now standing there then turned back to Randy to give him a stern look.

"Heh, overprotective parents at it again," Wazy said, stepping closer from behind KeA. "And you see, they don't want you looking at Randy's naughty magazines."

This was one of those moments when Lloyd felt like he really needed to say something. As if there was anything he could say to shut up Wazy anyway, but he didn't exactly get anywhere when Noel reappeared with a car magazine in her hands. "Here!" She declared as she sat down and opened it from a certain page then placed the magazine on the table. "This is an advertisement for a place that does custom paints. It caught my eye earlier because the owner used to do contracts for the Guardian Force, and I chatted with them several times about cars. See, they've got a discount coupon here, and..."

The rest of the crew leaned closer to admire the sample pictures. There were horses painted on the side of a truck, some kind of a bird on another, a wolf on yet another car, and... A couple of images of cute looking girls, and definitely not the type Randy's magazine had, Lloyd thought. More on the cutesy side - as a matter of fact, wasn't the blonde girl featured in one of the pictures a book character?

"Suppose we could get away with something like that," Elie said. "Some cute animal picture, or..."

"Hey, hey, isn't that the kind of staff Tio uses," KeA chirped, pointing at the sample image on the bottom of the page. The rest of them took a closer look; there was indeed another example image of a car with a picture of some kind of a magical girl on it. Another book character, perhaps? The girl had pink hair, but her cape and the staff she was holding certainly did remind them of Tio.

Randy grinned. "Oooh. Maybe we should use this."

"You... want a picture of Tio. On the car?" Lloyd looked at the picture again. Well, it certainly was cutesy and very much not like Randy's earlier example. "Wait, no, that'd be..."

"I think it would be cute," Noel said, and Wazy nodded with a smirk on his face.

Elie was a little less impressed. "I don't know. I mean, all right, we have had a few odd color schemes already but detailed pictures like this? Besides, isn't it expensive?"

"Well, we could always have it be you," Wazy said. "That blonde girl on that other picture looks a little like you, so if we had it painted white-haired..."

The look on Elie's face went horrified. "N-no thank you."

"It's not that expensive if we use the coupon," Noel cut in. "And besides, we have the mira right now, don't we?" She said, turning to look at Lloyd for some reason, and Lloyd grinned a bit. "Or what do you say, Mr. There's a School of Gold Salmons Here, Let Me Fish For Another Fifteen Minutes...? You traded in all those fish and made quite a bit of mira from that sepith, didn't you?"

That... had happened, Lloyd regretfully had to admit. "I- All right all right, we do have the mira. But it's still a bit..."

"KeA wants to see a Tio car!" KeA exclaimed with the biggest smile on her face, and it wasn't as if any of them could say no at this point.

"Settled! Tio car it is!" Randy agreed with a grin.

Noel hopped up from her seat. "I'm calling them right away and ask if they have time! As said, I know the owner, so we might even get a further discount. We don't need the car tomorrow, right?" With that, she went for the phone already, and Lloyd could only sigh.

 

The next evening

 

Noel had dropped off the car in the morning and brought it back in the evening, and the entirety of current SSS now stood outside admiring it. It was quite the sight, with the cutesy comic book style pictures of Tio with her staff on it. Certainly, worth what they'd paid for it, Lloyd had to admit, even though he was a bit embarrassed - half because the mira had come from his fishing obsession, and half because of the new paint.

"...She's going to judge us all so hard if she sees this," Lloyd stated his worries aloud. "I mean, it's a work of art, but..."

"It's fine it's fine," Randy said, circling the car with a huge grin on his face. "Besides, it might be another month before she returns," he pointed out the sad reality. "At least this way she's kinda with us on our missions, right?"

Elie giggled a bit. "That's kind of a cute way of thinking about it. And then again knowing you, Noel? You'll just see another color scheme somewhere and will want to try it in a couple of weeks anyway."

"Yeah well, I already had that Guardian Force color in mind and bought the paint cans for it too. We can just put that on it before she gets back," Noel reasoned, nodding at a box at the other end of the garage. "But let's keep this for a bit. It's really cute."

It was fine, Lloyd reasoned. Perhaps this kind of paint scheme was a bit overdoing it, but hey, no harm was done, and Tio was never going to see this anyway.

* * * * * * * *

Back in the present day

 

That frozen silence lingered for a few seconds before Lloyd was the first to recover. They could not, under any circumstances, let Tio see the car, or she would never let them live it down. "But Tio," he started. "You just got back to Crossbell yesterday and so much has already happened. Are you sure you should be moving around this early in the morning? He put on his best caring smile. "If you want, you could take the morning off--"

There was that oh so familiar glare from Tio, and Lloyd sighed. "I'm sorry, that's not what I meant. Just..." In all honesty, he did mean it this time; they needed a plan and they needed one quick.

"Honestly..." Tio replied. At least it seemed like the rest of them managed to compose themselves at this point and could carry on a conversation about her being back as usual, though Lloyd could tell everyone was trying to come up with something. Tio would also surely notice there being something up, but...

With the chief heading out, it was time to come up with that plan and quick. KeA had at least gone to the library first thing in the morning, so they didn't have to worry about her.

"Oh, about the terminal," Elie said as they finished the conversation. "Now that you're back operating it, mind giving it a quick look just to check that I didn't do anything wrong? Just a precaution. I don't think I messed up anything, but..."

"I guess I could," Tio said, leaning over to the terminal again, and Elie took a step back.

Randy, Noel and Wazy had moved back a few steps as well, and Lloyd turned to his alarmed crew. "The car," he whispered.

It turned out that before Lloyd had the chance to voice any kind of plans, Elie had already thought of pretty much the same thing. "All right. I get her to make snacks with me to delay us heading out. Lloyd then gives Tio that thing he bought the other week and buys us some more time. You three go outside and spray paint that car right now," Elie stated with the calmest, most controlled tone of voice, not that she didn't have to stick to whispering. "Move." Randy, Noel and Wazy suddenly had somewhere to go to and they headed towards the stairs as fast as they could without appearing too suspicious, and Elie turned back to the terminal. "How is it?"

Tio turned to look at her then at Lloyd with quite the unimpressed look. She had figured out something, hadn't she? Had she heard them? Lloyd kept his cool, and Tio sighed. "The terminal's fine. The only thing different is that you installed Pom, anyway." She closed her eyes for a second then cracked a half-smile. "Good thing you had practiced."

Ah yes, last night's thing. "Ah... heh, yeah," Lloyd replied, looking a bit embarrassed. "I got a bit addicted to it, even. Guess all those gaming sessions against Michel paid off, though I've got a ways to go compared to you. Seriously, if you hadn't come in when you did..."

"You already thanked me enough," Tio said. "...Where did everyone else go though?"

"Oh, to grab some things and such before we head out," Elie cut in with the sweetest smile on her face. "Also, I was thinking of making some smoothies before we go. Good snacks in case we need refreshments. Want to help me? Our great leader can meanwhile figure which order we do the support requests."

"Mmm, sure," Tio replied, and the girls went into the kitchen. Lloyd breathed out in relief; that would buy them at least a couple of minutes. Now if he just managed to delay their departure a bit more. This was also a good time to check how the actual operation outside was going, and he quickly made it up the stairs and opened the back door.

Over at the garage, Randy, Wazy and Noel were already at it, with paint cans in hand and protective masks on. "Will you make it?" He asked, and Noel gave him a thumbs up.

"We're on it. Just made sure we take the support stuff that doesn't require the car first so the paint can dry at least a bit," Noel requested. "And we do need a bit of time with this, so keep her busy for a bit."

Lloyd nodded and closed the door. It wasn't going to be the prettiest paint job, he figured, but as long as Tio didn't see the car like it currently was, it would work out. Right, the requests; he headed back to the terminal and looked at them again. There was one from the train station, and then they'd have to go stop by IBC; those would hopefully take enough time for the paint to dry at least a little.

The girls seemed busy in the kitchen for now, so he picked up a magazine and sat down to read. Time seemed to pass painfully slowly; was it because they needed more time or was it because he was imagining it, he wasn't sure. He was less reading and more trying to sort out what to do next, silently praying the crew outside would get things done in time.

Some time later, Elie and Tio appeared from the kitchen, and Lloyd snapped out of his thoughts. "Hey, Tio," he called, getting up from his seat. "Come with me for a bit. I got something for you."

"Hmm? All right," she replied, following Lloyd as he headed to the stairs.

"Wait in your room, I'll be right there," Lloyd told her as they made it up one flight of stairs. He turned towards his room, and Tio nodded slightly and continued upstairs. He sighed; he knew exactly where the thing he was looking for was, but perhaps it would be a good idea to take a few extra minutes to 'look' for it, he thought as he opened the door. The kitty bank he had picked up from IBC a good month back was certainly on his shelf, but... He involuntarily glanced toward the back door before stepping into his room. Hopefully, the team outside would be done soon, but the more time he could buy them, the better.

The box containing the item he wanted was indeed exactly where he had thought it was, and he picked it up then paced around the room for a minute or two. All right, he needed to compose himself; if he acted too suspiciously about this, Tio would notice. She absolutely had to have picked up something being off already, but as long as they'd manage to pass it as being nervous about the Trade Conference, it'd be fine. Maybe. He found himself sighing again then exited the room and headed upstairs.

He knocked on the door then stepped in. "Sorry for the wait. Here you go." He handed over the box, and Tio looked at him curiously for a moment then took it and opened it. "We were over at IBC some time back to exchange sepith, and that black cat caught my eye. Reminded the whole team of you, so I bought it," Lloyd explained as Tio took the cat bank out of the box. "I think I saw somewhere that it's a book character or something along those lines."

"Kagemaru," Tio cut in. "...Yes. It's a book character. It's a very cute bank. Thank you, Lloyd."

"Don't mention it," Lloyd replied, feeling relieved for a moment. "I think it even had a..." He trailed off as Tio placed the bank on a shelf and activated the extra function on it, causing the cat's tail to sway around. "That, yes," he finished. "It was mentioned on the package, but actually seeing it, it's quite charming."

Tio watched it for a moment then nodded. "Very. Shouldn't we be preparing to head off to work soon, though?" She asked. "I swear if this attempt of delaying our departure is because of your earlier comment about me needing more rest..."

So she had noticed something, as expected. Lloyd lowered his face and sighed. "It's not like that. We just... All right, I'll go check if everyone else is ready. Let's meet up at the entrance. I did get the requests sorted out, so we'll be heading off to the train station first."

At this point, he could only pray the car crew had gotten their job done.

 

Some hours later

 

They were going to need the car to get the rest of the support requests done, and Lloyd felt a tiny bit nervous as their crew stepped outside the back door. The sight outside was reasonably promising, at least. The car roof, hood and door panels were covered in military-style green paint. It was not the cleanest and perfect paint job, but outside some parts still being black which had been the base color of their previous paint scheme, there were no signs of the images that had been there.

"And here's the car," Noel declared, turning to Tio. "Just wait till you get to ride it. All right, get in everyone, we're going!"

Tio studied the car for a moment, and Lloyd felt a bit nervous as he got in, but she took her seat a moment later. "It really is a great car," Tio said as Noel steered the car out of the garage and into the streets. "The paintwork is a bit messy, though," Tio added, causing everyone else in the car to tense up for a second. Probably; Lloyd sure did at least.

"Oh yeah. That," Noel replied, and Lloyd could see a bit of a nervous grin on her face. "I said about custom paint earlier, right? So you see actually? That's my doing. I was going for Guardian Force colors then got a stupid idea about making it camouflage and... Turns out I can't currently pull that off, so we have to put up with this mess for now." It wasn't a complete lie, Lloyd knew; Noel had mentioned such an idea before, and the mess of military green on the car could've easily been a beginning of something like that. "But we don't have time for that now."

Lloyd wasn't entirely sure if Tio bought it. "We've had a couple of different custom paint schemes so far. Noel really likes trying out that stuff," he explained. "But since military colors failed, maybe we could find something new."

"Actually?" Noel continued. "Remember that car paint place I told you guys about the other day? I saw they had this real cute Mishy themed thing available. You like Mishy, right Tio?" She asked with a smile. "Maybe we could try that one!"

There were a few seconds of silence. "I... do," Tio replied. Her eyes had lit up, Lloyd noticed, though she was hiding the excitement as perfectly as ever. "This is a police car though. Is doing something like that fine?"

"All great," Randy commented. "You should've seen the car a few weeks back, it was this fancy bright red color. We've had some stripes before and other stuff like that. The chief doesn't care either!"

At this point, a Mishy theme sounded like a fine idea, Lloyd thought. Crisis averted; it would all get to wait until after the Trade Conference, though.

* * * * * * * *

A couple of weeks later

 

"Guys!" Noel slammed a car magazine on the table, and Lloyd already knew what this was about. "Check this out!"

"Hmm? Well," Wazy said, leaning over her shoulder to look at the picture of a car with a dark base color, accompanied by a large bright neon green stripe. "Ehh. That's quite the cool looking color scheme," he added. "Are we switching again?"

The rest of the crew moved over to look. It was kind of cool color scheme, Lloyd had to agree. "Oh also, I saw another custom Mishy theme, pink this time, but we're going to have to inquire from the usual place," Noel explained. "That one was kinda expensive though, so maybe after another one of Lloyd's fishing expeditions. But this one, we can do ourselves. You guys up for it?"

"Listen, now..." Lloyd gave her an unimpressed stare. All right, so the SSS had had a tiny bit of extra funds lately, and it just might've had a lot to do with said fishing expeditions, but getting called out like this was kind of embarrassing even if nobody seemed to mind. Everyone else just gave him this knowing look, and Lloyd sighed. "Fine, I get it. But we could try this one."

"Mm, it does look like something we can do ourselves, yeah," Randy said, studying the magazine. "We can get the stuff for this and do it after work."

Elie nodded. "And if we do it in the evening, KeA can help too if she wants. Didn't you say you want to try to help us paint it, KeA?"

"Yeah, yeah!" KeA replied, excited. "Car painting! Though KeA still thinks the one we had last month was cooler. Tio's picture was on the car!"

Lloyd felt a frozen chill run down his spine, and from the way the rest of the crew froze, he knew he wasn't the only one.

There was a tiny bit of a surprised look on Tio's face, then that all familiar glare. "What?"

This. This was going to take some serious explaining.

End.