"I'm not saying he'll pull a fast one, it's just that the temptation is there, you know? It's an unfortunate situation- one week he checks out of our lovely government sponsored room and board, and the next he's already-"
"Let bygones be bygones, Gio. We're honest businessmen playing an honest game," Fitch chimed in. The burly, balding man with thick eyebrows who seemed to be leading the group acted significantly more subdued than his size and gruff appearance let on. His cheap polo and slacks made him look practically suburban, and his awkward, relaxed demeanor gave him the look of a perpetual tourist. "Now you want in on this bet or not?"
"Look, I didn't mean anything by it, I just-"
"No no, he's right. Nobody wants to go home empty handed," Johnny interrupted in mock concern. He took a gentle sip from his glass. "How about this instead- if I lose, you give me half of my chips back. That way, there's no more temptation to argue over it."
"A real wise guy tonight, eh?" Gio replied with a snort. The older gentleman was skinny but tough, possessing a few facial wrinkles that only showed up when deep in thought. The "Sharpedo Hunter" t-shirt he wore with dramaticized spears piercing through the predator's belly seemed to reflect his attitude on life. Reluctantly, he pulled an unusual purple colored Pokeball out of his pocket and placed it next to his chip pile. "Alright, pal, if you really want a new Pokemon that badly, I'll play you some hardball. Hand out the cards, Fitch." The dealer shrugged and began repeatedly shuffling and cutting the deck. "But if little Suzy is getting a new set of hardcover Pokedex editions for her birthday instead of that little Unovan furball she's been dying for, we'll both know who to blame."
"I'll be proud to know I helped with her education," Johnny countered, sparking a chuckle around the table. Compared to the other two, Johnny looked constantly pale and exhausted, but the ever-present bags beneath his eyes had been there so long he considered starting to call them a birthmark. What was unusual this visit was the collared blue shirt he wore today and his thinly trimmed beard. With a few more cups of coffee he could have easily passed as an office secretary.
Fitch slid off two cards to each player in order. Keeping their hands flat on the table, they quickly peeked underneath. Each in sequence signaled a check with a quick hand motion, giving up their initial betting rights. Without waiting for any extra confirmation, Fitch placed three more cards face up in the middle of the table that would make up the rest of their hand.
Ace of Diamonds and a Jack and Four of Clubs.
First in the round, Johnny eyed the cards and took a quick sip of his glass. "I'll bet 200," he said flatly, pushing forwards a small pile.
Gio took a few more seconds to respond, eying the other two carefully while rapping his fingertips on the table. "Call," he finally said with a sigh, matching the pile with his own.
Fitch peeked at his cards, scratched his chin, and then looked again as if to be sure. With a shake of his head he slid his hand to the center of the table. "Sorry boys, I think this hand is a little too hot for me. I'll fold."
"Jumping ship on me already, Fitch?" Gio teased.
"I'm afraid that's just how it is," Fitch countered with a shrug. "What goes on in the wild, stays in the wild. I'd rather come out of this with at least a few dollars left in my pocket." He quickly flipped over the next card into the river for the remaining players.
Eight of Spades.
"I'll go ahead and check," Johnny said automatically. He considered going back for more scotch, but something about what Fitch had said stuck out to him. "So what do you know about what's going on in the wild? Have they make you the new warden already?"
Fitch laughed. "Johnny, that ain't happening 'till the old man's gone and croaked. Or at least when this insane plan to divide the park into six mobile ecosystems falls through," he said with a shrug. "But to be fair, even though he's an old bogey, he still beats the old boss. I never did look good in black."
"I don't think any of us did," Johnny said coolly. If he noticed his companions now eying him nervously, he didn't show it. "You planning on putting in any chips, Gio?" he asked after a few seconds of uncomfortable silence.
The older gentlemen blinked and snapped back to his cards, as if having momentarily forgotten the progress of game. "Y-yeah. I'll bet 400."
"Call," Johnny responded instantly. Both players cautiously pushed a significant chunk of their chips into the pot.
"Well," Fitch interjected, trying to sound conversational despite the tenseness in the air. "Let me tell ya, just the other day some genius from Kanto thought it would be a clever idea to get around the time limit for hunting by harassing as many wild Pokemon as he possibly could and then baiting them out of the borders to where his team was waiting. He discovered a little too late that the entire compound is surrounded by an electrified fence," He took a large swig from his glass, quickly refilling it with more drink. "Pretty soon there's something like half a dozen Rhyhorn ready to impale this guy, and now he's trying to scare them off by chucking even more rocks at the group- oh man, I can't even describe it. Then here we come waltzing along, seeing what all the ruckus is about, and here this kid is out screaming, looking like he's ready to piss his goddamn pants." He gave a low, rumbling laugh that caused his stomach to ripple.
"I can imagine," Johnny said quietly.
"It's hard work watching over every young hotshot who thinks they're invincible while trying to keep this place at least looking semi-decent. We don't even work directly with the Pokemon here most of the time. But it's an honest living, and that means these days we can least try to act like honest people. You know how nice it is being able to go out shopping, visit the beach, or even go to a concert or party without having to worry about the police? Well, the signore over there might not, unless it was something on TV," Fitch continued. Gio rolled his eyes and snorted. "The point is, a normal life isn't as bad as we made it out to be. It's nice… nice having the option, you know? Just to have an ordinary life."
"Or to be an ordinary trainer," Johnny replied, pressing his cards into the table hard enough that his knuckles turned white. Gio and Fitch glanced at him cautiously again, trying to look distracted by their drinks. "Let's deal the card, Fitch," he practically commanded.
"Right. The card." Fitch shakily flipped over the final card in the river.
King of Clubs.
"Johnny, you know we're still sad about what happened," Fitch continued with a sigh, slowly pushing his hands into his face. His voice contained a hint of desperation. "The kid- the radio tower- it all happened so fast. One day Ariana and Petrel are telling us we're gonna be rich- that we're gonna change the whole damn world- the next, League agents are swarming the place like some hex maniac cult discovered an underground meth lab. A lot of people never made it out. We wanted to testify, too, but we had families to look after, kids to think about, you know how these things are-"
"Don't worry about me, Fitch," Johnny tried to say calmly, but he couldn't mask all the discomfort in his response. He rolled the remaining drops of amber liquid in his glass distractedly and took a deep breath. "I've had plenty of time to get over the past. Plenty of time to think about what went wrong. These days, I just want to stick with looking towards the future."
A gruff voice across the table let out a hoarse laugh. "Well at least you two can stay positive," Gio said. "My back was killing me before from standing around all the time and now it's killing me from how much I have to walk. I need to catch a damn chiropractor-type Pokemon or something."
"Good luck with that, old man," Fitch said mockingly. "Pretty sure you're gonna need-"
"I'll be going all in," Johnny interrupted again, shoving his substantial chip pile forward without a hint of expression. The group could hear a canine Pokemon faintly howling from somewhere in the distance.
"Just like that, huh," Gio growled. He leaned back in his chair, taking over the entirety of the table like an exhausted general puzzling over miniatures on a military campaign map. Eventually he leaned forward again and reluctantly pushed in the remainder of his chips and the deep purple Pokeball. "Just like that. I suppose a deal's a deal, though. We both went all the way, so I'll be betting everything as well."
"Alright, I suppose you should go ahead and flip," Fitch said after a moment's hesitance.
Gio's dour expression slowly broke into a smirk. With a hint of dramatic flair, he picked up and flipped over a Jack and Eight of Hearts. "Two pair, my boy. Read 'em and weep."
Johnny's impassive expression seemed to crack into something like relief, but he quickly covered it up and stoically flipped over his own cards. "Ace pair. That's three of a kind."
"Sweet Arceus, I thought I had you," Gio muttered, slowly sinking his shoulders into the table. "How the hell did you ever learn to play like that?"
"Learned from the best, I suppose," Johnny replied with a shrug. "Helped that I had plenty of free time to practice." He delicately slid the pot to his own end of the table while helping to collect the cards.
A flicker glistened in Fitch's eye as the dealer carefully eyed his opponent's movements. "Hmm," he began, sounding uncertain as to whether or not he wanted to express his thoughts. "Actually, Johnny… I'd be interested in seeing some more of that technique, if you're up for another round."
Gio lightly slapped his companion in the back, now looking far too drunk and exhausted to continue. "Give it a rest, Fitch. Weren't you the one earlier saying about not wanting to burn through your whole paycheck tonight? Let's just give the man his money and get out of here."
"I'm afraid I have to agree with Gio here," Johnny interjected, carefully pocketing the Pokeball and pushing back his chair. "It is getting late, and I'd like to catch the next ferry if possible. You know how life out on the road is- you never stop moving."
Fitch remained contemplative for a few seconds before shrugging and downing the rest of his scotch. "Suit yourself, Johnny. You just let us know if you stop by around Cianwood again, alright?" He pulled up a steel box from under the table, preparing to divvy out the bills inside. "We'll help you get down here and play another round sometime."
"Oh, I appreciate the offer," Johnny replied with a brief smile. "I'll be sure to keep in touch."
Fifteen minutes later, the drifter had walked out of the lodge an extra $1200 and one Zorua kit richer. The warm interior of the poker room opened into the calm, open exterior of the dimly lit woodlands. His anticipation was tempered by the knowledge that most of the Pokemon outside would be fast asleep at this late of an hour. With Johto's Safari Zone so isolated from the rest of society, most of the employees tended to live on site- and had permission to bring over guests past closing hours. The carefully constructed woodland ecosystem as it was now- at its most tranquil- was something most tourists would never get a chance to see.
"What goes on in the wild, stays in the wild, huh…"
Johnny stopped to look at his new Ultra Ball. Training was hardly the easiest way to make a living these days, but with some preparation, a Pokemon with illusion abilities would be invaluable for all sorts of… profitable enterprises. And since the foreign Pokeball would lack any of the usual radio tags connected to his trainer ID, he could be sure that the Pokemon Centers wouldn't give him any trouble. He could always use the old inheritance excuse, if it came to that. But first, he decided his new companion deserved a breather of its own.
Taking a rest on a nearby bench, he gently scratched under the ears of the small black fox who had taken to his new environment with curiosity. It gave an eager yip at his touch and nuzzled contentedly into his palm. Johnny couldn't resist an honest smile. He'd have to think of a name for the little rascal. Life finally seemed to be looking up- once he had dealt with a few loose ends first.
"You know what else I've heard about the wild, little guy?"
Casually flicking a string tied to his opposite index finger, a familiar pair of Aces slipped out from under his sleeve. He crumpled the cards, tore them once and tossed the remains into some nearby bushes.
"A Krookodile never changes its stripes."