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A Matter Of Habit

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Upscale bars and restaurants boasting every cuisine from every corner of the globe jostle for space amongst the last remnants of civilian housing. Even down the seediest of backstreets faces come in all the colours of the rainbow, merging, twisting, screaming through the blistering Seoul summer. Here of all places, language could be redefined; he hears it scurry through the mouths of millions and emerge a mere shadow of its former glory, lost to half learned English phrases that swallow rather than synthesise with barked Turkish slang from the ice cream vendors; native Korean sizzles with suppressed Confucian rage below a tidal wave of foreign leisure.

Itaewon isn’t home, but it could be. It doesn’t smell like home, or sound like home, but it’s easy on an English speaking tongue.

A family rushes past him. Australian, if their accents are anything to go by. The teenage daughter, clutching a Super Junior CD in hands trembling with excitement, asks for directions in halting Hangeul. Her face lights up when the shop vendor begins his response only to fall when she clearly can’t understand him.

“Keep going for two blocks, then turn left and follow the signs to the subway, take line 6 towards Hongdae,” he saves her. She looks relieved, she looks disappointed, English flows like breath from between his lips, he’s missed it.

On nights like this there is never any destination. His feet find a path through tourists that he wishes he didn’t see. He clocks key features like he’s working – eyes, nose, mouth, it’s pointless trying to put a face to a hairstyle – it’s all too easy to lose yourself in this line of work and his brain wreaks havoc with his pacified nerves as a mind like a database searches frantically for possible matches in his memory.

A single face sticks out, a single red flag. He has a match.

The man is attractive, but not in a way that anyone would notice immediately, his eyes crinkle into familiar half moons above the outstretched bow of his smile as his hand drops to the lower back of an unfamiliar girl, leading her past the bouncers and into the underbelly of Seoul. His wide shoulders carry a distinct tension that leaves him instantly recognisable, the sort of thing that a man like him should have done away with years ago. The last vestige of personality is different for them all.

There is no need to follow him. He is no longer the enemy, if anything he could prove a valuable asset in the mad dash to leave this place behind.

Still, it would be a shame to let all those years of death defying stupidity go to waste. And so it is that Tablo walks into a club.

Finding his mark again is harder than expected, losing track has always thrown him just a little. Lights strobe across a packed dancefloor, ricocheting off cheap jewellery and sequined dresses. Shiny things are in this season, or so Tablo overheard George saying not two days ago.

A girl stumbles in the direction of the bar and collides with him, she begins to apologise until his eyes lock with hers and dissolve her to giggles, her hand staying a moment too long on his shoulder. She’s drunk, obviously so, and yet Tablo has to breathe deep to keep the tension from his aura as her hip brushes dangerously close to the handgun riding at his waist. Clothes are always too big on his skinny form and it’s saved him on far, far more occasions than his field training or razor sharp mind ever has, concealed weapons are kind of his thing.

When he finally sends her on her way, confused as ever by the effect he has on Korean women, Tablo sees what he’s looking for. It takes him a moment, maybe two to reconnect the dots and establish just why the non-descript jeans, white tee and snapback (cocked at an obnoxious angle) are so familiar. He never notices clothes first time round.

His mark for the evening is hiding himself and his date over a bottle of soju in a booth at the back of the club. They look natural as anything, bashful excitement teasing the corners of his smile as she feigns nonchalance. They talk directly into each other’s ears making it impossible to determine what they’re saying from Tablo’s less than advantageous position by the door but getting much closer isn’t likely to be an easy task. If he were wearing something less obviously Tablo or if he could take shelter behind one of the teaming shoals of party goers or if he could do that thing that he’s seen so many people do where they all but vanish from perception then maybe…

Tablo sighs, if only he were a field agent.

The man, his mark, goes by the name Taeyang, Sun. It’s a preposterous, ungainly alias and exactly the sort of thing that Tablo has come to expect from the NIS. TOP, Se7en, Psy, Hi, Gummy, Victory; the only one of the bunch who chose wisely was George and Tablo doubts it’s any kind of coincidence that it’s George alone whose real name has eluded him. Seunghyun, Dongwook, Jaesang, Hayi, Jiyeon, Seunghyun again, they’re not so tough.

Back in Canada it had taken him two years to establish the real identity of a Korean mole working under the handle Blossom. She had raised suspicions within three months of her arrival at the CSIS after communications with their people in Seoul started to vanish into thin air, she had stuck it out for a full four years before Tablo had descrambled a supposedly corrupted file that she had sent to the NIS in which she had been fool enough to sign her own name – just another Kim Yoona to add to Korea’s extensive collection. The agent who’s playing havoc with them now is in a different league, hiding in nooks and crannies in the system that they hadn’t even realised existed. It wasn’t Tablo’s job to stop them; he wasn’t even on the right side of the Pacific ocean when they struck, but he was always, always, their strongest asset in sniffing out rogues and turncloaks.

“I don’t know why I came to Korea,” he says forcefully to the barman as he slings back his first shot of soju but his only response is a blank stare. Tablo’s always been pretty good with soju, when the floodgates open he’ll be face down on the floor faster than you can blink but those blessed first few shots always go down like cherryade.

One, two, three, Tablo doesn’t want the forth shot, the barman says it’s been paid for and jerks his head towards the other end of the bar. Taeyang, date free for the moment, raises a hand to acknowledge him and Tablo’s blood turns to ice water.

And really, what was he expecting to happen? He’s not here on any kind of official business and for all he knows Taeyang’s date is nothing more suspicious than that. He throws the final shot down his throat as quickly as possible and stumbles to his feet, frantically planning his escape from Itaewon, from Seoul, from Korea – maybe he could go back to Hong Kong.

He’s halfway through prematurely missing Mithra and Tukutz when Taeyang’s hand lands on his shoulder, teeth showing through a grin that Tablo can’t read,

“Fancy seeing you here!” he shouts over the music and Tablo can’t think of a natural response in time. What’s he supposed to say to someone who knows what kind of work he’s in, who’s in the same line of work and has trained meticulously, night and day since they were first scouted to spot liars and traitors and defectors?

“Um, I was just…”

“Hey don’t worry about it, no one likes to talk about work off duty right? I’ll leave you to it – see you on Monday!”

Tablo honest to god nearly corrects him, points out that they’ll see each other when they see each other, before he catches himself and remembers that sensitive matters of national security are not discussed by government agents in public places.

“Yeah, sure. Hope you and your girlfriend have fun,”

“She’s not my girlfriend,” Taeyang winks and vanishes back into the crowd. Not his girlfriend. That means he’s working; could be something big, could be something small but Tablo has just walked right into the middle of someone else’s playground and he needs to get out. He was never here to help the Korean government per se, but there are some things that need to be sabotaged and some things that don’t. This is not one of the things that does.

Tablo came to Korea for George, sitting smugly back at head office even now. Arrogant and emotional and prone to the kind of fuck ups that get most people killed and yet so undeniably brilliant at what he does. Dynamic and bombastic, no one has ever been able to anticipate him and no one has ever been able to get ahead of him; it could be a well thought out game plan or it could just be that he’s the luckiest man on the planet but one thing’s for sure, if you want to make a mark on South Korea, you need to take out George first.

The Apple Affair is one of those incidents that intelligence services across the globe site as being a prime example of how not to do it, and so of course it was George’s greatest triumph. He had been charged with the position of principle broker in a very high profile deal with the Russian government pertaining to the sharing and transit of intelligence regarding China. For something that should have been such a painfully long shot things were going surprisingly well until George decided to try to make a little extra cash on the side by selling on a large portion of the weapons at his disposal to some less influential ministers.

Of course, when the FSB got wind of the transaction they immediately suspected American involvement, drawing negotiations to an abrupt close and sentencing George to a slow death in the Siberian backwaters. By the time Bigbang division found him five months later he was the last man standing having convinced the idiots guarding him that they would all die if they didn’t head out into a midwinter blizzard to get more firewood and letting the storm take them all out in one go. He had used his remaining time to hack through the Russian Government server on the stoneage computer available to him and had procured the kind of information that left Russia in South Korea’s pocket almost indefinitely.

When TOP found him he was sitting on an empty apple barrel, demanding that someone take note of how slim his thighs had gotten. The Korean Government had been so thrilled with his efforts that they had ruled that punishment be waived, Mister Yang had been furious and George had been delighted.

Tablo makes for the door and the room sways horribly around him. One step, two step, spin spin spin. It’s the alcohol, it has to be, except that he only had four shots and he ate before he got here and –

“Oh fuck,” Tablo whispers under his breath as he identifies the burn radiating from his stomach, he needs to purge, he needs to get this out of his body now. He’s never been poisoned before, but he’s read enough and his imagination is vivid enough that he can pinpoint the sensation.

The walk to the bathroom is painfully slow as Tablo tries to appear sober enough to not get himself noticed by security as the world begins to melt before his eyes. This, right here, is why he’s not a field agent – he’ll be lucky to survive.

Bent over a toilet bowl , Tablo works around the burning in his abdomen as he forces himself to vomit. Cold sweat breaks out along his brow and his hands begin to shake and it’s so hard to tell where the drugs end and the adrenaline begins. He’s been warned about this, been warned a thousand times that you do not, under any circumstances accept a drink that you didn’t see poured for you and even then keep your wits about you. Maybe this is the Canadian government out to find him, maybe the barman’s in their pay, maybe their burning all the non-evidence, maybe….

“You’ll have a hard time getting it all back up again,” Taeyang hisses in his ear.

Tablo is pulled from the stall headfirst, flailing pathetically against Taeyang’s superior strength. He’s thrown roughly into the corner, hitting his head what would be hard enough to see stars if the room weren’t already so disjointed. He tries to talk but all that comes out is a pathetic gurgling sound.

“I would shoot you but we’re in a public bathroom right now and for the time being everyone’s just going to think you’re blind drunk,” Taeyang’s voice sounds muggy and faroff, “I was hoping you’d clear a few things up for me before you go but I can see that might be difficult.”

Tablo fixes Taeyang with as dark a stare as he can muster and opens his mouth to talk again, “Ong Ongma!”

“What was that,” Taeyang says, moving in close so Tablo can whisper in his ear,

“D-Dong Youngbae,” Tablo manages, shuddering with the force of drawing breath. Taeyang frowns,

“You know my name, huh?” he looks mildly unsettled, “we didn’t think you’d gotten that far.”

‘We’, Tablo can just about register that that means this is not a solo effort, that he has been watched on a larger scale. He wants to know if this is something that the entirety of Bigbang division are in on or if he’s the last dumbass to fall but he can’t speak, his tongue is too heavy.

Taeyang recovers and an unsettlingly comfortable smile falls on his face, “so I guess you’ll know what I’m saying when I tell you that Chaerin, Hongjun, Daesung, those guys aren’t gonna miss you. No one is, you nasty foreign piece of shit! Did you really think you could get away with the same code name in Canada as you do here? There aren’t exactly an abundance of ‘Tablo’s in this world Mr Lee and when you look at that little…fiasco that your government got itself into a few months back and you look at the time you arrived in Seoul…well it’s not exactly difficult to put two and two together now is it?”

How does he know? How do they know? When an anonymous data package containing the names of 20 of the Canadian Government’s 21 international moles was posted publically on the internet it was global news, but the fact remained that the last name wasn’t released, that the data made it pretty ambiguous as to whether there even was a last agent to monitor. In Brazil, China, India, South Africa, his friends were tried and most were killed, people he’d never admit to knowing, but he had been safe. Safe because he was brilliant, a brilliant man chasing a brilliant man, as careful as he ever was.

Yet here he is, dying on the bathroom floor of a place that he will never call home. There is a gun at his hip and he has nothing left to loose and he is dying, passive in the face of the inevitable.

Blotches begin to appear in his vision and the muscles in his neck loose all their strength. Taeyang leans over and rests a hand against his neck, checking his pulse.

“Maybe I was being a bit hasty when I said that no one would miss you, I think Jungshik and Jin quite liked you.”

Jungshik…..Jin….Tablo knows that they’re his friends, or as much his friends as anyone in Korea is. But as his brain begins to shut down he can only think of Jungshik as a Tukutz the code encrypter and Jin as Mithra the decrypter. He’s sick to death of boiling people down to their roles in this job, he knows it’s the only way to stay impartial enough to do what needs to be done – before you can even let your heart beat – it has dehumanised him more completely than he has ever managed to dehumanise the targets of the assumed moral apathy that all agents must live by.

“It was George who spotted you,” Taeyang says walking away, “he took one look at you and wanted you out.” And Tablo wants to scream that it doesn’t matter, that Taeyang can kill him all he wants but the damage has been done. The CSIS panicked, cut him loose as soon as the news broke that they were no longer safe. The world is nothing but a few dark splotches moving ever more restlessly towards total black. He summons the last of his strength and prepares his final words,

“Fuck George Dragon.”

Taeyang stops, the door opens, “yeah there’s no way you broke George’s identity,” the door closes.

There is silence, and then there’s nothing at all.