Gabriel Agreste fixed a stern frown upon the man seated across from him. "No, René. And that's final."
René, a tall, thin man with a long face, a narrow nose, deep-set eyes, and thinning silver-blond hair, steepled his long fingers. "Now, Gabriel," he said calmly, "the research doesn't lie. If you'll just—"
"I don't care about your blasted research!" Gabriel interrupted impatiently.
"Then why hire me at all, hmm?" René said mildly, a small smile on his face. "In case you have forgotten, my old friend, this sort of thing is precisely why I have been your publicist since you introduced your first collection."
Gabriel pinched the bridge of his nose. "What you're proposing," he said tiredly, "is preposterous. Furthermore, it makes no sense."
"Au contraire, it makes perfect sense!" René insisted. "Gabriel, Adrien is a teenage boy. Some would say he is the teenage boy. Beautiful, personable, humble, intelligent, quiet, thoughtful..." He paused, then shook his head. "Alright, so he's a living, breathing fairy tale, because he is literally the only teenage boy I know who is any of that." He chuckled. "But to Parisians, and especially to his peers, he is an ideal."
"I won't deny that," Gabriel said, arching an eyebrow. "After all, I have carefully guided his education and development to ensure precisely that."
René's smile dropped ever so slightly. "Yes. Well." He coughed politely. "The problem is that like yourself, Adrien is largely an enigma. To the world, he's little more than a pretty face."
"I see nothing wrong with that," Gabriel said.
"Except that it isn't normal," René insisted. "Teenagers, they're social creatures. They go to movies and concerts. They hang out with friends. They date." He leaned forward. "Adrien has to take great pains to avoid being seen when he goes out to have fun with his friends, non?"
Gabriel's lips pressed into a thin line, his eyes narrowing. "I'm not certain I appreciate the accusation, René."
"My apologies," René said, leaning back and smiling genially. "I simply mean to say that as a child of the digital age, Adrien should be more than simply a pretty face in nice clothes. He should be seen. He should be active on social media." His eyes twinkled. "He should have a pretty girl on his arm, one who will captivate Paris as much as Adrien himself without driving his admirers insane with jealousy." He paused. "Well, not overly so."
Gabriel said nothing. René took that as a sign to continue. "Adrien needs a photogenic girl his age, one who complements his perfection without stealing the spotlight. A girl he can be seen enjoying life with." He leaned forward again. "It's something ordinary kids can identify with, Gabriel. They can look at pictures of Adrien and his girlfriend, read his posts about dating and spending time with her, and feel like perhaps..." He made a swishing gesture with one hand. "Perhaps we are not so different from this gorgeous, perfect boy, non? Perhaps with the right clothes, the right hair, we can be as happy as Adrien Agreste." He spread his hands wide. "It's a positive message, and positive messages sell."
"Hmm," Gabriel said thoughtfully. "I understand what you're saying, René. I simply feel this is not right for my son."
René dropped his obsequious facade and gave Gabriel a solemn, sincere look. "It's healthy, Gabriel," he said. "Especially for a boy who has lost his mother. This is not only good for his image and your business, it is good for the boy."
A silence lapsed between the two men. Finally, Gabriel sighed. "Adrien will balk at having a girlfriend assigned to him," he said.
René smiled, his obsequiousness back in place, along with a twinkle of mischief. "You might be surprised," he said. "Find the right girl, one who's the perfect fit, and..." He linked his hands and mimicked a bird taking off.
Gabriel stroked his chin thoughtfully. "Very well. I will assign Nathalie to the task of selecting candidates at once."
René's smile dropped slightly. "Are you certain this task is...ahem...suited for her?"
Gabriel's lips thinned. "She knows Adrien better than anyone," he said. His face fell slightly. "Admitting that is no small feat."
René sighed. "Between old friends," he said. "Though as an old friend, I think you could be a bit less distant from your son."
Gabriel's eyes tightened. "I have my reasons," he said flatly. "In any case, I will assign this project to Nathalie. And now, I have other matters to attend to. Good day, René."
René stood, a mild frown on his face. "Until our next appointment then."
* * * * *
When one was the personal assistant of Gabriel Agreste, one learned to manage extreme levels of stress with complete poise and composure. One learned to live with the unexpected. One perfected the art of maintaining one's stone face and emotionless, professional, detached demeanor regardless of the situation.
All of which was the only reason Nathalie Sancoeur refrained from yelling "What the FUCK?!" upon receiving her newest assignment from her employer. Instead, she adjusted her glasses, her thin eyebrows raising only slightly. "I'm sorry, Monsieur Agreste, you want me to what?"
"Assemble a list of prospective girlfriends for my son," Gabriel repeated calmly, in his usual detached, businesslike tone. "Candidates who photograph well and complement Adrien are priority, of course, but relatability and notability are important considerations. I want a girl who is successful and noteworthy on her own merits, preferably from a family of some significance, but not necessarily a girl from a higher social circle. Ideally, she should not outshine Adrien, of course. He must always take the spotlight. That is important." With a slight frown, he added, "Chloé Bourgeois should not be on the list. At all."
"Agreed," Nathalie said as she took notes on her tablet.
"This girl should be someone who looks good with Adrien," Gabriel continued, "but who will be relatable to his admirers. A girl as wholesome and decent as my son..." He trailed off.
Nathalie raised an eyebrow. "A girl every girl in Paris would want to be friends with rather than want to kill in a jealous rage?" she suggested.
Gabriel smirked. "Yes. That." He steepled his fingers. "And most importantly, she should not be a complete unknown. Her name should be recognized. The media should have an easy time identifying her and publishing her achievements."
Nathalie frowned at that. "You understand this is a tall order," she said.
"I expect you to fulfill this task with your usual efficiency, Nathalie," Gabriel said curtly.
Nathalie glanced over her notes, brow furrowed. "Hmm." Her lips pursed. "Strangely enough, there is a girl who immediately springs to mind who meets every single one of these requirements..." At Gabriel's raised eyebrow, she began hurriedly swiping at her tablet. "A classmate of Adrien's at Collège Françoise Dupont, Marinette Dupain-Cheng."
Gabriel's brow furrowed. "The bowler hat with the pigeon feather and her name embroidered in the design, if memory serves."
"Yes," Nathalie said. "She is also class representative, an aspiring fashion design student, and was personally chosen by Jagged Stone to design the cover of his latest album." She adjusted her glasses. "Her parents own a bakery near the school and are well-respected in the community. Also, her great uncle is a world famous chef."
Gabriel stroked his chin. "Yes," he said thoughtfully. "She does sound like exactly the sort of girl...hmm."
Nathalie held up her tablet, which displayed a picture of Marinette. "This is her," she said helpfully.
"Yes, I remember her," Gabriel said briskly, nodding. "She even photographs well...very well then. See to it. Tell Adrien I wish to speak with him in..." He glanced over his schedule. "One hour. I trust you can present his new girlfriend within that timeframe?"
Nathalie fought to keep her face neutral. "Of course," she said.
* * * * *
Saturday was not ordinarily a terribly busy day at the boulangerie. Today was proving to be an exception, as Tom Dupain was working on six different custom orders which had come in one right on top of the other with very short delivery windows, and Sabine and Marinette were handling an unexpected rush of customers. Things had just started to calm down; Marinette leaned against the counter and let out a sigh. "That was crazy," she panted.
The door opened; Marinette braced herself for another wave of customers, but blinked when Nathalie Sancoeur walked in, barely paying attention to where she was going as she rapidly swiped and tapped away at her tablet. "Uhh, hi," Marinette said shakily. "Can I...help you?"
Nathalie looked up and adjusted her glasses. "Marinette Dupain-Cheng," she greeted. "You've been summoned by Gabriel Agreste. It is important. Please change clothes, freshen up, and come with me at once."
Marinette blinked. "Huh?" She looked at Sabine.
Sabine shrugged. "Go ahead," she said. "I think I can handle anything else that comes up." She glanced curiously at Nathalie. "I would like to know what this is all about, though."
"It's sensitive," Nathalie said. "It does involve Adrien."
Marinette was gone before either woman could register her abrupt disappearance. Sabine blinked rapidly. Shaking her head, she turned to Nathalie. "So, what exactly is this about?" she asked.
Nathalie frowned slightly. "Something that's either going to go very well or very poorly," she said. "I'm honestly not sure which." Adjusting her glasses, she added, "in a sense, you could call this Monsieur Agreste's rather peculiar idea of matchmaking."
Sabine blinked, tilting her head. "I...see?"
"Oh, don't worry. The absolute worst that would happen is your daughter would return home embarrassed or in a bad mood," Nathalie said reassuringly...or her version of it. Sabine frowned, but before she could press the issue, Marinette reappeared, freshly scrubbed and dressed.
"I'll be back later Mama!" she called as she flung herself past Nathalie and out the door. Nathalie raised an eyebrow, turned, and left.
Sabine shook her head and smirked. "Well...this should be an interesting story..."
* * * * *
Marinette bounced lightly in the back seat of the car as Nathalie belted herself in and started the engine. Catching Nathalie's mildly reproachful look in the rear view mirror, she forced herself to stillness and cleared her throat. "So, umm...what exactly is going on?"
"Monsieur Agreste has decided that Adrien needs to maintain a social image more appropriate to a boy his age," Nathalie said as she pulled away from the curb. "That includes social media, spending more time in public, and dating a girl his age." A pause. "I have been instructed to find a suitable girlfriend for Adrien based on certain select criteria given to me by Monsieur Agreste. Based on those criteria, I have selected you."
Marinette let out a gasp, her eyes wide and her face red. "Wh-what?"
"I understand this is not precisely normal," Nathalie said, her face softening somewhat, "but this is a decision Monsieur Agreste has made. If you are not comfortable with this, I understand. I will find another candidate—"
"N-no, it's not that!" Marinette stammered. "It's just...w-what does Adrien think about...I mean—"
Nathalie grimaced. "He has not been informed yet," she said. "We will be waiting in the reception room at the mansion until Monsieur Agreste summons us once he has informed Adrien of the situation."
Marinette frowned. "So he's just forcing this on Adrien without his input, out of the blue?"
Nathalie glanced at her in the rear view, then sighed. "It's his way."
An awkward silence fell.
"I...am sorry about the scarf," Nathalie said quietly. "You put a lot of effort into making it for Adrien. It was wrong to remove your name from the package, to let Adrien believe it was from his father."
Marinette sighed. "N-no, it's alright. I mean, I saw how happy it made him to have gotten a nice gift from his dad, even though it wasn't really. I think that was probably a better present than the scarf itself."
Nathalie's eyes softened. "You care a great deal for him."
"W-well, I...!" Marinette's face heated up. "I..." She trailed off and dropped her gaze.
They pulled into the rear entrance of the Agreste estate. Nathalie turned off the engine. "Come, we'll have coffee and macarons while we wait."
* * * * *
Adrien stood outside the door to his father's study, taking a deep breath. Inwardly, he reflected on what it said about his life that whenever his father asked to speak with him in person, it made him apprehensive and set him on edge. *Normal kids don't have a panic attack when their fathers want to talk to them. Then again, normal kids don't have appointments just to talk to their fathers...*
Pushing down all his anxiety and resentment, Adrien schooled his face into a model's calm poise and knocked on the door.
"Come in," he heard from the other side. He pushed the door open and walked across the room. Gabriel stood with his back to the door, hands clasped behind his back, gazing up at the portrait of Adrien's mother.
"You wanted to see me, Father?" Adrien asked.
"Sit down," Gabriel commanded. Adrien crossed to one of the large leather chairs in the room and took a seat. Without looking at him, Gabriel continued, "There are going to be some changes."
*Oh no. He's pulling me out of school and locking me up again.* "Father, I—"
"You currently have no social media presence," Gabriel cut across him. "This is going to change. Nathalie is already preparing a number of social media accounts for you and will set them up on your phone. They will be yours to do with as you please, but don't forget that they will be monitored. Conduct yourself appropriately."
Adrien blinked. This was...unexpected. Beyond texting his friends and sharing photos, he'd been forbidden from having even so much as a Twitter account. "I...don't understand," Adrien said shakily.
Gabriel turned to look at him. "It has been brought to my attention that making you more relatable will raise the standing of our brand among your peers. The importance of social media is something I cannot ignore. Your recognition will increase through proper social media usage."
Adrien suppressed a sigh. *Of course.* "Very well, Father."
"One other thing," Gabriel said. "You are to be assigned a girlfriend. You will be seen with her in public often. You will post about spending time with her online."
Adrien's jaw dropped. "...what?!"
"This is also part of the shift in marketing," Gabriel said emotionlessly. "Your peers will see you having fun with an approachable, relatable girl and..." He frowned. "Well, I doubt I need to explain it."
Adrien's brow furrowed. "So...you're just throwing some random girl at me and expecting me to act like we're a happy couple, all for some dumb marketing ploy?"
"It's hardly dumb," Gabriel snapped. "This is also for your own benefit. Dating and engaging in social media are..." His mouth twisted. "Healthy for a boy your age."
"Yeah but...you can't just assign it like this!" Adrien protested. "That's not healthy at all!"
"This is how it's going to be," Gabriel declared. He glanced at his phone. "Your new girlfriend has arrived at the mansion. Nathalie will be bringing her to the study momentarily."
*This isn't happening. This is completely insane!* "But...! Father, I—!"
The door swung open. Nathalie walked in, her heels clicking on the floor. "She is here, Monsieur Agreste," she said.
"Show her in."
Adrien watched as a girl stepped out from behind the door, her face burning red but also pale with dread.
His eyes widened.
Marinette squeaked and offered Adrien a small wave, pasting a sheepish smile on her face.
Adrien gaped. "Marinette...?"
"Umm..." Marinette ducked her head. "Mademoiselle Sancoeur...told me what's going on," she said in a quavering voice. "I, umm...I..." She began poking her fingertips together. "Idon'thaveaproblemwithitifyou'reokaywithit," she blurted out in a rush.
Adrien blinked. "You...really...?"
"I mean...!" Marinette put her hand behind her head and laughed shakily. "We're friends, right? I mean...if you have to have a girlfriend for...y'know...reasons..." She looked away slightly. "It's better if it's a friend, right?"
Adrien did his best impression of a floundering fish for several seconds. "W-well...yeah!"
"Excellent," Gabriel said briskly. "The two of you will be given a social schedule by Nathalie." He glanced at his tablet. "I am expecting an important call in five minutes. You are excused, all of you. Nathalie, see to their needs."
"Of course, Monsieur Agreste. If you would both come with me..."
Adrien's mind whirled, his emotions a hurricane as he followed Nathalie to the receiving room, Marinette at his side and darting cautious, nervous glances at him. Her face was burning scarlet, making her freckles stand out. He felt his own face heat up. He took a step closer to her. "Marinette, are you sure you're okay with this?" he whispered. "I mean, this isn't normal, you know that, right?"
"I know," Marinette whispered back, her face turning even more red. "It's, I, well, I..." She took a deep breath. "This is the kind of thing you'll have to do no matter what, right?" At Adrien's frown and nod, Marinette pressed on, "I...I want to..." She faltered. "It won't be too bad if it's a friend you..."
Adrien gave her a gentle smile. "Marinette...you're truly amazing, you know that? But this isn't fair to you. There's no telling how long this charade is going to go on. I don't...I wouldn't want you to get tied up in something—"
"It's fine!" Marinette said sharply and hastily. "I mean..." She played with her hair. "I'm not...you know..."
"But if you had somebody you wanted to go out with, or someone asked you out," Adrien pressed, "this gets in the way of that. I don't feel right doing that to you."
"I do!" Marinette blurted. Then, after an awkward pause, she added, "I-I mean...let me worry about that." She gave Adrien a genuine smile. "I have no problems with this, if...if you don't mind..."
Adrien blushed. "N-no, I don't mind," he stammered. "I-I'm just...worried about you," he said. "Are you sure you're okay with this?"
"I'm okay with it!" Marinette agreed feverishly, nodding rapidly.
Adrien tilted his head curiously at her reaction. "Well...okay then..."
As they sat down and Nathalie left them to attend to other matters, Marinette felt like her heart was about to explode out of her chest.
*I'm Adrien's girlfriend...!*
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