The first time she met them was like this.
Her target was an antiques store. She'd been casing it for weeks, learning about the security systems, studying the typical pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk after closing. She'd gone inside once, to get a feel for the space - a three-dimensional, fully-rendered understanding she couldn't get from the building plan registered down at city hall.
But only once. No point making herself familiar to the proprietor.
And finally, tonight, she was ready.
At 12:30, the late movie crowds had gone in and the barflies hadn't yet come out. It was her moment.
She picked the lock on the back door and crept to the cases where the most valuable antiques were stored. She was about to start on those locks when she sensed she wasn't alone.
She whipped around, eyes scanning the darkness.
Four figures detached themselves from the shadows, just enough so that she could see them, and she had the feeling they were doing it for her convenience.
"Stealing is illegal, you know," one of them said.
"No, be fair," a second said to the first. "She hasn't actually stolen anything yet."
"Not from here, at least," said the third. "I wouldn't be surprised if this breaking-and-entering thing is a pattern." He stepped forward a little further, and she could see his outline. "Breaking and entering is also illegal, by the way."
"I'm not a criminal!" she hissed, keeping her voice low, even though the interlopers spoke in casual tones. "I'm a collector."
"So are we," said the fourth figure. There was just enough light in the store to show her the deadly-looking sai he drew from his belt. "Thing is, we only collect things after the owners are done with them."
She was good. Good enough to escape through one of the multiple exit routes she'd planned in advance, without the four figures ever getting a clear look at her.
First match, draw.
You'll see us again! they had called after her, as she escaped into the night.
She believed them, because they were good too. She knew it was only a matter of time before she came home to find them looming in the dark of her sanctum sanctorum, defiling the crown jewels of art and history with their hands that stank of old rainwater.
Time she would use to program her own security system with some - creative - upgrades.
It had taken April six months to save up the five-hundred dollars, but it was all worth it when the mail came and she finally had the ticket to Turtle Experience in her hand. The date on it was still weeks away, but every day she would be that much closer to spending a full hour interacting with one of the famous Trachemys erectus that were housed at the Bronx Zoo.
The red X's on her calendar marched steadily towards the circled box, and on a beautiful Saturday morning she drove to the zoo, walked to the Reptile Annex, and presented the little rectangle of cardstock.
"Welcome to Turtle Experience," the young man in the brown jumpsuit said. "Right this way."
He led her down the EMPLOYEES ONLY hallway, and then they walked through another door, emerging into a kind of courtyard. It was spacious but intimate - promising a "personal, close-up encounter", as the brochure had put it - with high walls that prevented non-ticket-holders from having any part in the adventure.
Another door opened, and a female keeper entered, followed by one of the turtles. He walked without restraint or lead, and April's breath caught a little - partly from fear, partly from excitement, partly from the joy of a dream attained.
"His name is Tchaikovsky," the woman told her. "Play nicely, Tchai."
Then the two staff members retired to a corner of the enclosure, and her hour had begun.
The turtle looked her up and down. "Hi," it - he - said.
"Hi," she managed, barely able to remember how to speak. "You - um... I've been waiting a long time for this."
"Yeah." He moved off a few paces, and leaned against a tree.
She frowned, disappointed by his lack of enthusiasm, and then went over to him, determined to get her money's worth. "Hey," she said. "I paid a lot of money for this. You're supposed to talk to me."
He turned his head slowly, meeting her gaze. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm sure you're a very nice person. But my balemate is sick and I would really rather be with him."
There was something so sad, so human, in his voice. In his startlingly-intelligent eyes, and in everything about the way he held himself.
"Experience a deep sense of connection with these amazing creatures!" the ad-copy had proclaimed. "Rediscover yourself through an encounter with another kind of intelligence!"
In that moment, she got everything the brochure had promised, and more.
She strode over to the keepers. "Please donate the rest of the money towards helping his friend," she said.
The zoo employees stared at her in surprise. When she turned, the turtle was also looking at her with an expression of astonishment.
As she moved back towards the exit, the turtle stepped away from the tree. "Miss..." he said, and she stopped.
He lowered his eyes. "I think that's the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me." He looked up again. "Can I... can I give you a hug?"
She nodded, almost without hesitation. "I'd like that."
His arms came around her, and he held her very gently against his armored chest. "Thank you."
Then he pulled away, and hurried to the inner door, waiting impatiently for the female keeper to unlock it.
As the young man in the brown jumpsuit escorted her back to the front of the building, April thought it was the best five-hundred dollars she had ever spent.
She was walking home from work when she heard the voices of children.
They were coming from below her.
"Hello?" she called.
"Hi," replied a voice from beneath the grating.
"Are you stuck? Are you lost?" She tried to peer down between the bars, but it was too dark to see anything.
"No," said a second voice.
"Do you need help?" Just keep them talking. "Where do you live?"
"Inna sewers," said the second voice. If her alarm bells hadn't been ringing yet, they were now.
"Shut up!" hissed a third voice. "Master said we can't talk to anybody!"
"How many of you are down there?" she asked.
"Five!" said the second voice.
"Four," said the first voice. "They's four of us."
"Where is -" she almost choked on the word, "Master?"
"Out," said a fourth voice. "He said stay here. Stay here or we be in a lotta trouble."
"Does Master ever - hit you?" she asked, not sure if she wanted to know the answer.
"Ev'ry morning!" said the second voice. "We all gots to take a turn with Master hitting at us!"
She called the police right then. As soon as the kids came into the light, she regretted it.
She had heard about the so-called Lizard Men of the sewers, but promising young scientist April O'Neil did not believe a word of it.
If she had, she might also have had a plan for what to do if a giant turtle packing ninja gear fell through her front window.
"Help me," he whispered, and passed out.
Her training as a biologist demanded that she take this bizarre creature apart to find out how it worked. But her training as a person demanded that she help him.
In the end, the intellectual part of her brain lost.
She did what she could, and she waited. When he awoke, in complete terror at being in the same room as a human, she told him the story of what she was. And he trusted her.
And they both learned that the stories they'd heard were true.
"Is this seat taken?"
She looked up. It was one of those turtle-men who had been all over the news two years ago. She hadn't expected to ever actually meet one...
"No," she said.
He had two bags. He stowed one in the overhead rack and put the other between his feet when he sat down.
She turned and pretended to stare out the window while actually watching his reflection in the glass. Before the train even pulled away from the platform, he had taken out a laptop and started working intently on something.
Her self-control lasted only so long; then she had to turn and see what he was doing. It looked like a lab report.
"Are you the one from MIT?" she asked.
He saved his work and glanced at her. "Yes."
"Yes." He typed a sentence on his oversized fold-out keyboard, then looked at her again. "Where are you going?"
"Home," she said. "I came down for a conference."
"Oh?" He saved again. "On what?"
"Robotics. AI." She had known that would interest him. Though she had never met him, she knew his entire life story. "You know, I almost worked for Dr. Stockman."
He frowned and closed the lid of his computer. "When?"
"About eight years ago. I was short-listed for the assistantship, but then it went to -"
"Toby Lyttle." He looked at her appraisingly, then shook his head. "Small world."
"Small world," she agreed, and turned back to the window. A minute later she turned again and blurted, "If it had been me, I wouldn't have set the Mousers on you."
He blinked at her. "That's... nice to know."
They passed the rest of the trip in awkward silence. She wondered, if things had happened differently, whether they might have been friends.