The Chemistry of Chance
Proficiency in Polynomials

There's nothing like the bittersweet smell of espresso to calm nerves and refocus a frazzled mind. At least that's what they tell me. They being the many students in my class who make it a habit to study at coffee houses. So I thought I'd give it a try, just once. I was having very little luck with homework, so I slipped into a loose-knit sweater and jeans, packed my books and headed downtown for a cup. And that wasn't all I was going to get. I didn't know it then, but life was about to throw some serious kinks into what I thought was my destiny.

I felt better the minute I passed through the door. The aroma of fresh coffee tantalized while the glow of soft orange lights relaxed. It was a perfect combination. I was already holding hope that the atmosphere would spur my brain into cooperation.

After ordering a macchiato, I claimed a corner booth and arranged a series of books and notebooks over the wooden table top. Getting settled was easy. Taking the first step to solving the latest mathematical adventure was not. Fumbling through a series of mental notes, I set to writing out the problem and washing it down with a drink. The extra shot of espresso certainly made for an interesting taste, but I decided I liked it.

A half an hour had me with a few complete equations, but struggling on a particular number. It was absolutely frustrating. I palmed my forehead, releasing a pent up breath of annoyance. Suddenly, I wished I hadn't been so ambitious as to go back to college. I was fine with literature and art, but science and math had me running for the hills. If only the general education classes could be bypassed.

"You look a bit stressed."

The voice startled me and interrupted my train of thought, but it also gave me something to blame the failed equation on. I glanced up, pencil poised above the last number I'd written. I'm sure I looked surprised when I saw his face. "I, um… yeah, this math is horrible."

Tseng shifted his weight onto one foot, glancing over me and at the penciled writing. He looked as perfect as ever in his pressed, tailored shirt and slacks.

Of all the people to run into. "It's pretty basic, but it's never been my strong suit," I commented.

"It isn't all that basic. In fact, it's quite complex. I struggled at first."

"You've studied this?"

"Don't look so surprised. Turks aren't all brawn and no brain."

"I… I wasn't implying-" I wasn't, but I could feel my cheeks grow warm with embarrassment. I couldn't just explain away the surprise in my voice. I paused, then, "I was not implying that at all."

"Good. I might have been offended." He wore just enough of a smile to let me on to the fact that he was joking.

"Wouldn't want that…" I returned to the equations, but the idea of working through them while someone with more experience watched irked me. "Are you planning on critiquing my method?"

"Not at all. I was going to ask if you'd like a few pointers."

Now that he mentioned it, a few pointers sounded pretty good. "Sure, what've you got?"

Rather than sitting across from me as I'd expected, Tseng took a seat beside me. The bench was long, but I was in the middle and we were practically shoulder to shoulder. It made me slightly uncomfortable, but I was betting that he didn't want to bother with rotating the paper every couple of seconds to play show and tell. I didn't budge.

"First, have you given much thought to the method you are using?"

"I… well, no. I just try to remember and follow the steps that the professor goes over."

Tseng glanced sideways at me; his eye roll would have beaten out anyone else's. "Forget the professor and his methods. Can you keep a secret?"

I was puzzled, but I nodded "yes."

"Professors aren't always proficient. I'd start by finding an understanding of the problem. Don't just try to solve it by calling up what you've seen drawn on a dry-erase board, identify what the problem is asking you to solve. Once you've got that, devise a plan of action. Different classifications call for different techniques, try looking at the options and choosing one that makes sense to you." Tseng paused a beat. "Once you have a technique, execute it. When you have your answer, look back at that answer and ask if it is reasonable. Use another variable, explore your steps, and see if the answer makes sense given the problem."

I glanced at Tseng, hiding a bit of relief. I'd considered the idea that professors weren't always proficient in their methods, and had assumed that they chose what would be easiest to teach rather than what was easiest for me to do. "That makes more sense than the drawn out explanations I've gotten in class, actually."

"It's a strategy that works for many things."

"So what technique would you use on this?" I pushed the paper an inch or two, watching his eyes scan the problem.

"Factoring polynomials. What fun," he said through a grin. "Simplify."

"Simplify?"

"The easiest step to overlook. You need to have the standard form. If you have a polynomial equation, put all terms on one side and 0 on the other."

He wrote his standard format below my problem, x³ + 6x² + 12x + 8 0.

"Find and decide on which possible rational roots to pursue. Descartes' Rule of Signs can tell you how many positive and how many negative real zeroes the polynomial has."

"Right."

I worked with that and once I found the correct solution, he continued.

"Divide by your factor. This will leave you with a reduced polynomial whose degree is 1 less. For the remainder of the problem, you'll work with the reduced polynomial and not the original. If the reduced polynomial has degree 3 or higher, go back to step 3; otherwise continue to step 5."

"Uh-huh." And I did.

"Now you're down to a quadratic or linear equation, which you already know how to solve."

"I do."

"Then solve it."

So I did. I back-tracked and found the answer I'd come to completely reasonable.

"Perfect," he remarked.

Tseng's smile was infectious. I smiled wide, rather proud of how quickly I had worked through the problem with his strategy. "What strategy is that?"

"Everyone's favorite: the repetitive sort. It is considered an iterative strategy, since the middle steps are repeated as long as necessary."

I mocked a sigh of relief and swept my palm across my forehead. "I'm glad that's over…"

"You're right. I think I'll research my own techniques from now on."

"You should breeze through the remaining problems."

"I don't know about that, but…"

"You will."

"Well, thank you, Tseng. I appreciate it. Can I buy you a cup of coffee for your time?"

"I think I'll manage without."

"What'll a cup of coffee hurt?"

"You never know, Lockhart, could be the death of me. I've already had my limit."

I smiled, hiding the itch I felt every time someone called me by my last name. It was so impersonal. Then again, it was Tseng.

"You are relentless, bribery by pastry?"

"Not at all, I already have what I want so bribery isn't necessary. I just feel guilty accepting help and not returning the favor."

He cocked a brow. "Then wouldn't the appropriate payback be help of some sort, not sugar and caffeine?"

I wondered briefly where he was going, but played along just to see. "And what sort of help would this be?"

"Hm. Haven't thought of it yet, but I'll let you know when I do."

I nodded despite the fact that I knew I probably wouldn't see him again. I was rarely in this part of town except to dodge traffic on my drive home from the university. I had no idea where he spent his nights. "You do that."

"Enjoy the math."

Like that was going to happen. "Sure."

I watched his perfected ponytail swish as he walked toward the door. By the time I completed the last of the assigned problems, the coffee shop was deserted and the workers were cleaning. I gathered my things and headed toward home.

In the years after Meteor and the excitement surrounding Sephiroth's clones, I had drifted from happiness to sadness, then to contentment. I made the decision to hire a manager for the bar along with a few workers, giving me spare time for classes. I worked the late shift occasionally, but mostly I did inventory and medial tasks on weekends and made appearances. I was just the owner.

Cloud had moved out on a mutual agreement. It had become too hard to live across the hall from one another after we found that we were meant to be friends, and just that. We keep in touch, and honestly our relationship has improved. Denzel and Marlene went with Barrett to take some weight off my shoulders. I was glad to see him pick up the role of a father. My existence was lonely, but I appreciated the focus I was able to direct toward college. I discovered that bar tending for the rest of my life would pay the bills, but it was not what I really wanted. I was still trying to find that.

By the time my mind refocused, I realized I had driven all the way home. The bar was relatively crowded, but I didn't feel like mingling. I nodded to a few people I recognized, checked in with Ian - the manager - and headed upstairs.

As my shoulder bag hit the chair, I hit the bed with a sigh. I spent the night curled with my favorite author and a mug of tea. Somewhere toward the middle, I calmed my restless mind and faded into sleep.

-&-

When I woke, I couldn't figure out why my thoughts had been so jumbled the previous evening. I blamed it on an overload of caffeine and math, but really I was jarred by the run in with Tseng. Looking back, I'm not sure if I believed it was the chance meeting or the sudden on-rush of memories he brought forth, but something about seeing him bothered me. I couldn't place it, so I moved on.

I showered and dressed, applied a little makeup and went downstairs for breakfast. In the mornings, no one is around anymore. Ian locks up after closing and heads home. People would only begin to show up towards noon, two hours before opening. As I wolfed down a bowl of cereal, I realized what I needed was a roommate. I'd have to think about that later. For now, I was running a little late.

Classes went as usual, predictable but entertaining. Notably, I did well on the math assignment but not so well with science. Maybe Tseng knew something about that? Well, I vowed not to find out. The last thing I needed was to be indebted to him. By the time I was through after four o'clock, I was hungry and feeling a little drained. I was glad it was Friday.

I go to Edge University. The campus was built shortly after life began to settle into order, so everything is new and clean. The drive, however, is not usually clean. The campus is near downtown, so navigating the rush hour from the office high-rises can get messy. And this afternoon was no different. As I sat in bumper to bumper, I let my thoughts drift. Somewhere in my distraction, a sports car decided to effectively cut me off and force me from the main road. I cursed, but left it at that. I was hungry anyway.

I merged into a side street and headed toward the main cluster of restaurants and shops. The choices for cuisine had expanded with the new growth of the city. Every imaginable cuisine is represented downtown, and tonight the fresh combinations from Costa del Sol sounded good. After stuffing my compact into a parking spot, I waded through the usual dinner crowd and into the grill. No sense in getting a table when I could easily eat at the bar.

I was half way through an island combo when I caught sight of the person taking a seat beside me. I tried not to choke on a fried plantain; twice in one week would have been enough, but twice in two days?

I swallowed, washed it down with soda and put on a smile. "What are you doing here?" Stupid question.

"I was about to grab a bite to eat."

Not unlike the answer I expected. "The plantains are great." I felt like a bimbo.

"I know. They're the main reason I come here."

"Really? Same here." Shiva… I sounded like an idiot.

I finished beating myself up and went back to my plate. I listened when he ordered the same combo I had ordered, and tried to force my brain to come up with the reason I felt so strangely around Tseng. There was something, but the synapses just weren't popping.

He was just taking his first bite of cilantro rice when I spoke. "You know, I aced the math assignment."

He looked up. "Did you?"

I nodded, forking another bite. "Yep. But science was another story." Damn. I hoped he'd ignore that. I shoved the forkful in and chewed.

"What are you studying?"

No such luck, Lockhart. I deflected. "Talking about school on a Friday night is bad luck."

He shot me an odd look, but didn't press. "I'm glad you did well."

At least he knew when to drop subjects. "Me too."

When I'd finished what was left of my dinner, I handed the plate off and leaned on both elbows after paying. I looked at Tseng, watching his jaw flex while he chewed. Eventually, I was looking through him, trying to figure out my behavior.

"Does my eating entertain you?"

His question broke my thoughts and I refocused on him. I was spacing a lot lately, with little explanation. "Sorry about that." I was. Staring wasn't usually a habit of mine.

As he pushed his plate aside, I noticed the flower wilting in the vase beside him. Synapse. I pictured Aerith holding flowers and smiling. Tseng had a thing for Aerith a long time ago. He reminded me of her, bringing to light old feelings I'd never really confronted. I missed her companionship. Maybe that was where the roommate thought had come from. I had been lonely with no one around but barflies and staff.

He must have caught the expression I had. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine." I couldn't remember the last time I'd felt so down. I knew I'd be picking this apart tonight.

"Can I get the check, please?" He wasn't speaking to me. I took a deep breath, relaxed.

I watched as he rummaged through his wallet, looking a little lost.

"Shit."

"I left my card on my keyboard. The dangers of online purchasing."

"No cash?"

"None."

I saw my opportunity. "Well, it looks like I get to help you out after all."

That seemed to trouble him. "I think dinner is a bit more than some help with math problems."

"It's not a big deal." I plucked my card from the front of my wallet.

"It is. Now we're uneven again."

"I don't mind."

"I'll pay you back. I can run and grab the card, get some cash out now."

"Don't worry about it, Tseng. It's late. Pay me back some other time if you have to."

The bartender took my card, and Tseng palmed his forehead.

"I'll be quick."

"You're going to annoy me." He really was. What was it with men who couldn't accept a little help because of something as simple as this? It's not like he was broke and I was cutting a welfare check.

"Okay." I could practically hear the wheels turning in his head. "I guess I could drop it by tomorrow, even Sunday." Smile.

Was he flirting with me? Probably not, I snapped back… arguing with myself. Good. "You know where the bar is, right? Either day, I'll probably be around."

My card came back with two receipts. I signed one, tucked the other into my wallet.

"Thanks, Tifa. I'll drop by over the weekend."

"All right."

We exchanged awkward smiles as we both pushed off our chairs at once. He gestured 'after you' and I started toward the door. I couldn't help but notice that he was trailing behind as I walked to my car.

"Plan on following me home?" I voiced the thought before thinking about the implications.

Tseng, for once in his life, looked baffled. At once, he recovered, "No, just going to my car."

He pointed a finger, and I followed to the car parked beside mine. There was enough chrome and muscle to fill the Northern Crater, I wondered if he was compensating. Or stalking me.

"Night," was all I could manage as I climbed in, careful not to bump his statement of a car with my door. I was never impressed by the show of wealth or testosterone through cars or other toys.

As I drove home, I tapped the steering wheel to the beat of my favorite CD and even tried singing a few lines, but nothing really lifted my spirits. I couldn't keep from wondering why I was feeling so pathetic lately. The only explanation was that I was bombarded by feelings about things long past. I'd be back to normal after some rest and a little fun. A light turned red and I stopped, digging my cell out of my purse. I dialed a familiar number and listened to the ring.

"Tifa?" Her voice sounded tinny on the other end, but cheerful as ever.

"Hey, Yuffie. How's everything?" Green reflected off my hood and I continued my drive.

"Good, what's up?"

"Feel like doing something tomorrow night?" No matter what was going on, Yuffie was always a source of fun and she could help with just about anything. I was glad for her friendship.

"Of course! I can be there 'round five-ish, how's that?"

"Perfect, I'll see you then."

We disconnected and I was already feeling better. We had a lot of catching up to do.

I arrived home to a rowdy crowd, but Ian informed me that everything was fine. I checked in with one of the bartenders Ian had brought in about a month ago.

"Hi Kiana."

She was mixing a mango ice cocktail, but looked up with a smile. "Hey, Tifa."

"Do you need a hand?"

"I think we'll be okay tonight. Relax, you look exhausted."

And I felt it. "Thanks."

I was upstairs in minutes, glad that I had such great staff. It really had improved business. We were one of the few decent bars in this part of Edge, and it showed. The weekends were packed with people from all walks of life but few from the underbelly.

I stripped, combed my hair, and fell into bed, foregoing my usual nighttime ritual. I had a long week, and the idea of sleeping in was heaven and I couldn't wait to get there. Though the walls vibrated with music and I could hear loud conversation, I was asleep within seconds.

The next day would really reset a few things in my life, and I would begin to learn intimately what the word chance really meant.

So, there it is. I've been playing with this idea for quite some time, and I have to admit, I am so excited with it. Besides the outward chemistry of the pairing, I want to explore and see if there could actually be anything else realistic to it. And this is a start.

I chose a slightly different spin on Tifa's attitude and she has a "new" life in a way. This is a few years down the line, so she would be a little different anyhow. I also chose first person because I have yet to write anything in this point of view and wanted a challenge. I have been reading a series of books written in first person to get a crash course, how did I do?

I feel there's quite a bit of freedom with Tseng. We know he's a leader. He's collected and intelligent, outwardly calm and etc. but we don't get to see much else. I took the liberty of giving him a few other facets which I'll be expanding on throughout the story.

Anyhow, thoughts or suggestions would be lovely. I am anxious to hear what readers have to say. Reviews truly are inspiration :)