Step 1: Acquire your target
Nine different voices bounced off the walls and windows of the van, mixing together in a cacophony of sound. With so many conversations going on at once, it was hard to keep up with anything. But Chinen happened to catch a snippet of the conversation going on in the seat in front of him between Takaki and Inoo.
“My cousin’s wedding reception was so awkward,” Inoo was saying, “because one of the bridesmaids kept flirting with me the whole time. I get so flustered, you know, because it’s weird. And she didn’t understand my jokes, so I didn’t know what to say.”
Takaki nodded as he shifted slightly in the seat. “I totally get that. I’m so terrible at flirting, I never know what to say either.”
Chinen’s eyes widened as he heard the topic of conversation. This was it, he decided. The moment he’d been waiting for for the past month. It was time to put Project Takanoo into action. Beside him, Daiki was still going on about some story concerning his socks but Chinen had tuned him out ten minutes ago. Instead, Chinen turned to the other person sitting beside him on the van’s backseat and punched him in the shoulder to get his attention.
“Hey,” Hikaru whined while he removed his headphones and massaged his arm. “What was that for?”
“It’s time!” he whispered and then he tugged on Daiki’s sleeve too. Daiki frowned once he realized Chinen hadn’t been listening at all. “It’s time for Project Takanoo,” he whispered. “Gather the troops!”
Project Takanoo was the codename Chinen had come up with for his plan to hookup his bandmates. The two of them had seemed closer lately and Chinen had noticed lingering glances between both when they thought no one was looking. Chinen was sure they just needed one little push to finally realize that they liked each other. This was his chance. He’d make them flirt with each other and everything would fall into place. It was genius.
By now, Hikaru had reached over the seat to jab Keito in the shoulder to pass on the message and get the people in the front row to join in too. Yabu, Yamada, and Yuto turned around from their intense conversation about soccer with curiosity, ready to see Chinen in action.
“You’re terrible at flirting, Yuyan?” Chinen said loudly (but as innocently as possible) as he leaned forward to rest his arms on the seat in front of him. “If you’re terrible, then you should practice. On Inoo. Right now.” It wasn’t subtle but neither were Takaki and Inoo most of the time anyway. He grinned and waited for someone else to agree with his idea. When no one spoke up, he stomped on Daiki’s foot.
“Yeah definitely,” Daiki blurted out and then tried to crush Chinen’s toes in revenge.
Takaki blinked and scratched his head while Inoo’s eyes swept around the van slowly like he was looking for hidden cameras. The rest of the group just quieted down like the calm before the storm.
Step 2: Start a conversation
Chinen kept staring at them expectantly, so Takaki cleared his throat and then looked at Inoo. He took a deep breath like he needed time to think of a good way to start. Finally he declared confidently: “I’m a thief here to steal your heart.”
The group burst out laughing, the sound echoing off the walls of the cramped van once more. “Woah, wait,” Hikaru interrupted. “Please tell me you have better pickup lines than that?”
“Uh…” Takaki’s eyes darted around as he scrambled to think of something better. He stared at the ceiling for a long time while the silence in the van grew thicker until he cleared his throat again and spoke. “Uh… do you breathe oxygen? We have so much in common.”
Again, the whole group laughed loudly at his poor attempt at a pickup line. The corner of Inoo’s lips twitched like he wanted to smirk, but it was quickly replaced by an unimpressed blank face instead.
“Maybe you should just skip the pickup lines altogether,” Yabu suggested.
“Aw, but I had a good one I was going to suggest,” Yuto pouted. Since he looked so disappointed, they all paused to hear what he had to say. A confident grin spread across his face. “Kiss me if I’m wrong but dinosaurs still exist, right?” He closed his eyes and puckered his lips in anticipation.
There was silence in the van until Daiki shouted “laaaaame!” from the backseat. Yuto pouted until Chinen finally blew a kiss at him so he wouldn’t look so sad.
“Let’s just pretend this entire conversation didn’t happen,” Hikaru said, putting his headphones back on and resumed staring out the window.
But Chinen would not be discouraged. Project Takanoo would be successful. Somehow. He just needed them to learn to flirt better. And then they’d realize how much they liked each other. They just needed more practice, that’s all. “Why don’t you try starting the conversation, Inoo?” Chinen suggested.
“So… how ‘bout that weather, huh?” Inoo said, turning to look out the window.
“You two are hopeless,” Yamada said while Chinen resisted the urge to bash his head on the seat.
Step 3: Give a Compliment
Chinen tried to elbow Takaki to keep him focused, but over the seat, all Chinen could awkwardly reach was his shoulder.
“Try compliments,” he whispered. “Compliments are good for flirting.”
Takaki looked at Inoo like he was an art critic studying a masterpiece and trying to think of something intelligent to say about it. “I think you have really nice fingernails,” he finally declared. He actually looked proud about this comment, which made Chinen want to facepalm.
“…thank you?” Inoo said, tilting his head to the side. But Chinen noticed he was actually starting to blush as he looked down at his hands. “I, um, like the- the way your nostrils flare when you laugh.”
Takaki covered his nose in shock. “My nose? It does?”
“This is getting weird,” Yuto whispered to Keito, who just nodded and continued sitting quietly by the window, leaning away from Takaki and Inoo as if he didn’t want to get involved at all.
But Chinen felt happy as he watched Inoo scratch his temple and look out the window again without saying anything. He was flustered.
Step 4: Smile a lot, but not too much (+Step 4.5: Eye Contact!)
Daiki leaned forward and poked Takaki’s cheek. “You’re supposed to smile more when flirting. Don’t look so upset.” Once the poking started, the rest of the group joined in and soon seven sets of fingers were poking Takaki’s face to get him to smile. Inoo looked like he was trying very hard not to laugh.
“Okay, okay,” Takaki waved all their hands away. “I know how to smile.” He grinned broadly, showing all his teeth.
“Dial it back a bit,” Yamada interrupted. “You look like a serial killer.”
“And stare into his eyes,” Chinen commanded. “You know, window to the soul and all that crap.”
“Inoo has no soul,” Yabu joked and then winced when Inoo’s hand slapped the back of his head.
“I bet you feel a connection with Inoo now,” Chinen continued, ignoring the silly antics of his groupmates. They were making Project Takanoo more difficult than it should be.
“I feel like I need to blink,” Takaki said.
“You should blink,” Keito said quietly. “It’s good to keep your eyes from drying out.”
Chinen noticed Inoo trying to avoid eye contact, despite Takaki’s intense staredown. He reached out and grabbed the back of Inoo’s head and forced him to look straight ahead. “You have to stare into Takaki’s lovely eyes too. Don’t you think his eyes are lovely?”
“Well they certainly are a pair of eyes,” Inoo stuttered out. He seemed to really be at a loss for words, which was quite unusual for him. Chinen felt like he was making progress.
“It’s like an actual staring contest,” Daiki remarked, looking back and forth between Takaki and Inoo. “I’ve got a hundred yen on Inoo.”
“Two hundred on Takaki,” Yuto shouted from the front seat.
“A thousand that it ends in a tie,” Hikaru said, removing his headphones again.
“Hey,” both Takaki and Inoo protested at the same time and turned to glare at Hikaru.
He smirked. “Pay up, you guys.” He held out his hand and waited.
Step 5: Casual Touching
“Can we get back on topic?” Chinen said, intercepting all the thousand yen bills and pocketing them himself. He leaned forward once again, ready to put the final nail in the proverbial coffin. Things were going well and it was time to seal the deal. “Once you feel a connection,” he told Takaki, “it’s okay to maybe casually rest your hand on Inoo, like his shoulder or something. To, you know, deepen your connection.” Daiki started snickering at his explanation so Chinen stomped on his foot again.
Takaki rolled his eyes but then placed his hand on Inoo’s knee.
“Woah, woah, woah, dude,” Daiki exclaimed, suddenly ignoring all the pain in his foot. “His knee? Really? You want to sleep with him already?!”
Takaki looked confused but didn’t move his hand. “It was closer than his shoulder. What’s the problem?”
Inoo was actually turning a weird shade of embarrassed red and brushed Takaki’s hand off his knee and then frowned at Daiki.
“At least take him on a date or something first before you get into his pants,” Yabu said. In the other seat beside Takaki, Keito looked like he was calculating how safe it would be to climb over to the front seat and escape all this madness.
Step 6: Make a date
“Yes, a date,” Chinen agreed. “This is going… uh, relatively well, so you should just ask Inoo on a date.” Okay, if he was being honest, it really wasn’t going well at all because Takaki was seriously the worst flirt in the history of existence, Chinen decided, and Inoo wasn’t helping anything by being uncharacteristically quiet, but Chinen was getting to the point of desperation.
“Uh, wanna go on a date with me?” Takaki asked with all the enthusiasm of someone asking if they wanted to go to the dentist.
“Nah,” Inoo answered immediately with a casual shoulder shrug.
Before anyone could say anything else, the van came to a stop. They were at their destination so time was up. Chinen sighed as everyone began to file out of the van, all of them already losing interest in the whole thing. Maybe Project Takanoo hadn’t been a success this time, but he thought he’d made a little bit of progress at least. There was definitely a connection between Takaki and Inoo, if only they’d realize it.
With one last shrug, Chinen climbed out of the van. He’d think of more strategies during work.
Once everyone else had left the van, Takaki reached out and laced his fingers with Inoo’s, drawing him closer. “Why’d you say no to a date?”
Inoo smirked. “Because we already have a date tomorrow. Or have you already forgotten you promised to take me to that fancy restaurant you were telling me about?”
“Ah, that’s right,” Takaki nodded. “How long do you think it’ll be before they all realize we’re already dating?”
Inoo shrugged. “If they haven’t figured it out after two months, I think they probably never will. Though I think it’s kinda cute that Chinen wants to hook us up.”
Takaki laughed. “We should probably get going.”
“You know, you really are seriously horrible at flirting,” Inoo teased.
Takaki leaned forward and kissed Inoo. “And you really do get flustered when I try.” He smiled as Inoo blushed again.