Disclaimer: Ai Yori Aoshi is the property of Kou Fumizuki and Hakusensha; the anime adaptations are the property of Pioneer/Geneon and JC Staff.

Summary: The Hanabishi would have never called off the engagement if they always had a spare in hand. AU.

Dark Horse

It was worrying that the Hanabishi would delay the re-introduction of their heir to the Sakuraba, but Aoi could remember two years ago when Miyabi approached her one rainy day and told her that the Hanabishi wished to renegotiate the terms of the betrothal. She remembered her guardian telling her that it had been so long since the initial agreement was made, that she was only a child, that feelings on either side could change. As if Aoi's feelings for Kaoru-sama would ever change. She knew that she loved him, deep and constant as the ocean.

Miyabi cautioned her that at the end of the process, the two families could be freed from their promise.

Aoi had cried and was given the hollow reassurance that it was most likely her Kaoru-sama also had no say in the matter.

How she fretted and worried whenever Otou-sama left for the Hanabishi compound, or when it was announced that Genichiro Hanabishi would be calling on them. Her anxiety had overtaken her that she slipped into a meeting while delivering tea to her father and the head of the Hanabishi.

She remembered kneeling at the threshold, sliding the shoji open and entering.

"It says here that the Hanabishi heir will wed the Sakuraba heir. The language is plain, and cannot be equivocated," Otou-sama stated.

The old man (who made Aoi feel uneasy, but why, she could not fathom), lifted his cane and pointed the end at her father. His eyes narrowed as he spoke, as if it was father who was trying to snake some way out of the agreement. "On your honour, your child will marry my chosen heir."

Otou-sama leveled his gaze at the end of the cane, following it back up to the wielder. "Yes, on our honour, Aoi will marry your chosen heir: Kaoru Hanabishi."

Aoi suppressed a gasp. It would be Kaoru-sama. Always. There was no other way.

She slowly set the first cup before the head of the Hanabishi zaibatsu.

Genichiro brought his cane down beside him. "Good. That has not changed. And with this union, you will have my support. If I recall, I will recieve Sakuraba Technologies and Sakuraba Research and Development in exchange as a dowry." The old man chuckled. "Are there any more undesireables you wish to clear from your household?"

Otou-sama frowned. "I will also offer Sakuraba Construction."

The chuckle turned into a harsh bark of laughter. "Are you weakened on all sides by the wolves, Sakuraba-san? The Hanabishi zaibatsu has no such problem. Come, let me take the problem off your hands."

She set the second cup before her father.

The frown did not go away. "I wish to keep to the terms of the original agreement as best as I can." Otou-sama's gaze quickly cut to Aoi. He knew she was no mere serving girl. "And so it shall remain. Aoi Sakuraba is intended to wed Kaoru Hanabishi."

Aoi quickly shuffled out of the room, her heart relieved that she was still bound to Kaoru-sama.

As she exited, the last thing she heard as the head of the Hanabishi snorting. "Feh. It is only so long that your fiefdom will remain in my kingdom."

Now, all her grief and fear had been for nothing. She would meet Kaoru-sama today, and even if was a bit late in coming, the day was only inevitable.

And so it came to be that Aoi and her family stood before Genichiro Hanabishi in a pristine room, one of many in the labyrinthine Hanabishi compound.

"Hanabishi-san, we come today to honour our agreement," Otou-sama announced.

"And so will I, Sakuraba-san." The old man, whom Aoi noticed to appear a bit thinner since she last encountered him, tapped his cane.

Her heart soared as a shadow was cast upon the rice paper panel.

The shoji slid open to reveal him.

Ice encased her entire being.

A pale young man with even lighter hair and glasses was revealed. The black school uniform he wore was a severe contrast to his countenance.

Aoi trembled, wondering if her tightly held memories had betrayed her.

The young man bowed to her, then smiled. It did not reach his eyes.

Genichiro tapped his cane imperiously.

"I present to you my grandson, my chosen heir: Kaoru Hanabishi."

Author's Notes
A strange thought on a plot hole I realized while re-reading the AYA manga. If the Hanabishi knew about the second Kaoru, why didn't they immediately get him and have him masquerade as the original? There was no need to have a big hullaballoo and cancel a(n over a) decade-long betrothal, and then have Genichiro's will state that whichever Kaoru is chosen as Aoi's husband gets to be the heir! As far as the Hanabishi knew, Aoi hasn't met either of them (the manga makes it seem like the Hanabishi's were keen to forget about K1), and it wasn't like they were even bothering to arrange a meeting with K2 and Aoi. I guess the Hanabishi assumed that right after gramps' funeral, they'd stick both Kaorus in a room and have Aoi choose between them in some sort of blind taste test.
Also, some speculation filled in as to why the Sakuraba would give away their only heir. If Aoi becomes a Hanabishi, it's reasonable to assume that the 200 year old dynasty that her family boasts will be swallowed up. What would force the hand of a proud man like Aoi's father? Maybe being absorbed by the Hanabishi was preferable to being torn apart from within - the series states that there is some internal strife that if Aoi scandalizes her father with her relationship, he could lose control of the zaibatsu.
Did I just write the first crack pairing AU fic in AYA fandom? And no, I believe Kaoru/Tina is pretty logical since it only requires a small twist of fate, while Aoi/Kaoru2 involves grabbing fate and contorting it beyond pretzel-shaped. Anyways, I think this makes a neat little one-shot (opening up a can of worms in the readers' heads!), but I could go about continuing it if encouraged.