You know, sometimes I wish my life were normal.

…what am I saying? Of course I don't.

Sure, things get complicated. There are secrets and there are identity issues, and there are secret identities. Always have to be careful when you've got one of those. I always kinda wished that there was a way that I could do what I do and not have to hide who I actually am. There's a great sense of freedom in being the man behind the mask, but it doesn't take long before a mask becomes suffocating.

Still, it's hard to feel that way when you're standing on top of a high-rise in the middle of Manhattan, looking down at a miniature world that depends on you for safety. It's looking over the bustling lights and dark alleyways that gives me a sense of pride. Heck, I'll admit it: sometimes it makes me downright cocky. But hey, a superhero's got to have his fair share of guilty pleasures, huh?

No time to think about that right now, though. I happen to catch sight of a group of punks snatching a purse out of the classic Little Old Lady's hands. Funny… usually my spider-senses start tingling at around this point. Like I said before though, no time to think.

I dive off the edge of the building, using my webbing to pull me towards the escaping perps. They duck into an alley, which is also pretty standard. They're probably aiming on scaling a wall or ducking into the sewers. Not if I can get there in time.

I land on my feet just outside the mouth of the alley. I'm about to offer one of my famous witticisms, but I stop when I hear a rather comic-like menagerie of "bang," "pow," and "ka-baam." It's pretty dark in there, so I can only assume that maybe the baddies got into a scuffle over how to divide their loot. That changes, though, when someone throws something at my feet. It's the lady's purse.

"What the-?" The lady's running up nearby, so I grab her purse and toss it to her. "There ya go," I tell her as she catches it. "Compliments of… your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, I guess." I lunge into the alley, making like I'm pulling a disappearing act. The fact of the matter is, there was no way I was leaving this uninvestigated.

I could see two of the punks lying only semi-conscious by a group of garbage cans. Had there only been two of them? I can't remember. I suddenly hear a weird metal-on-metal sound coming from behind me. I spin around just in time to see a manhole cover sliding into place. So, there are more. Why they'd throw away the goods is beyond me, but I can't waste time with those questions now.

I use my webs to bind the original two baddies, not wanting the cops to show up without a fun investigation to look forward to. Making my way over to the sewer, I lift the cover up and stick my head in. I can just make out two shadows turning a corner in the gloom. "Hey, wait up fellas," I call after them as I drop in. "What's the matter; bad case of arachnophobia?"

We've been having damp weather lately, so I had to be careful of the pipes. My webbing and wall-crawling would have to be limited, but I didn't think anything of it as I raced after them. After all, these are just a couple of small-time purse-snatchers, right? Why would I have to worry-?

Whoa. Check out the Bermuda Triangle action. I turn the corner that I just saw them run towards, and they're gone. They were only about five seconds ahead of me. There are no secondary tunnels or anything. Just one long, long passageway that probably led uptown. So… where'd they go?

"Nice trick, boys," I say to the dark emptiness. "But I've pulled it myself enough times to know when it's used on me." Mostly bluffing, but partially working on instinct, I shoot out a series of webs towards the practically invisible pipes up above and the shadows all around me. I smile as I hear one of them connect to someone above who cries out as he plunges to the ground. "Can't trick a trickster."

I can't help but gawk at the thing that was hit by a web shot. It gets up on one knee and rubs what I assume to be its chest, and even in the small circle of muted light it landed in, I realize that I'm not dealing with another human here. Heck, this isn't even a demented bad guy, unless it's a really demented baddie who wears bulky costumes during his expeditions. Which, y'know, wouldn't be a first.

"Let me guess," I tell it as it looks up at me resentfully. Squinting at him in the darkness, I try to distinguish his appearance. "Greenish skin, dark elbow- and kneepads, and… it looks like an orange eye mask. One of those back-to-nature survivalists, I'm thinking. Am I right?"

Before I could get an answer, his partner jumps down besides him in an agile motion. I notice that this creature bears a resemblance to the first one, only his eye mask appears red instead of orange. Probably some symbol of ranking or something, I think absently. "Hardly right, chump," growls the standing creature. "And if ya care about your survival at all, you'd back the heck away right now. Otherwise, I'll make sure ya get deep into nature yourself. About six feet deep, if ya catch my drift."

Heady little twerp, I'll give him that much. Looking down, I realize he's got a weapon in each of his hands. Mini-tridents. No, I know someone who uses the very same tools. Only, she's an assassin. "Sai? You're carrying a pair of sai? What do you think, that you're some kinda ninja or something?" He's obviously not taking my jibes too well, which is what I was hoping for. The more riled up he gets, the more likely he is to concentrate on offense rather than defense. At least, that's the plan.

It suddenly hits me that the pair of them look vaguely reptilian, and I can't help but wonder if Doc Connor has something to do with this. I know that the experiment that turned him into the Lizard did a number on his sanity, so he may not be above creating little lizard minions for himself if he had a relapse. "So," I continue, ready to leap out of the way the minute either one of them made a move, "if you're a ninja, you gotta have a sensei, right? "

That got him going. With a yell, the thing came running at me. I jumped onto the adjacent wall, but my spider senses went off. Ducking and rolling to the floor, I hear something clanging against the wall I had just abandoned. Peering back, I see that I just missed having a nunchuck thrown at my head. Holy crap, these guys really are ninjas!

The glance back took only a fraction of a second, and that's all it took for the creature that had thrown the nunchuck at me to grab my arms and push me against the wall. He's no Rhino, but he's definitely up there. "What do ya know?"

I blink up at him, confused. "I know that the newest version of Microsoft Windows is pretty much a disaster wrapped up in a shiny package, and that Calvin and Hobbes is one of the only comic strips that actually quit while it was ahead. Can you be more specific, though?"

A snarl sounds right by my ear, and I turn my head just in time to see a sai sink a lot further into a brick wall than I thought was possible. "Sensei, bug boy," mutters the guy with the red. "What do ya know about Sensei? And think real good about your answer this time."

Sensei? I was just trying to see if I could connect Doc Connors with all of this. But looking at the two stern and almost desperate faces in front of me, I think I might've gotten myself mixed up in something big. Darn, I hate it when that happens.

"Sensei's a teacher, right?" I ask. "Well, I knew a man who was a teacher. Really nice guy, too. And then he got just a little too ambitious and used an untested serum on himself. Turns out the serum turned him a bit green with an extra dose of the occasional crazy. Sound familiar to you guys or what?"

I watch as their faces got more and more confused as I tell my story. When they glance at each other, I figure that we're probably talking about two different things. "Ho-kay," I breathe, "I'll take that as an 'or what.'"

The grip on my arms slackens some, but the thing with the sai presses his hand against my chest, keeping me in place. Apparently, his friend was willing to believe in a misunderstanding, but there was no way Sai Guy was going to let me off so easily. "I'm gonna give ya the benefit 'a the doubt," he says. "Maybe ya don't know what we're talkin' about, or maybe you're just good at babblin'. So I'm gonna get a bit more detailed. Splinter. Big rat, of the gray-haired persuasion. Answers to Splinter, Sensei, and Father. Missing for two days. What do ya know?"

Hm. A bit different from my understanding of things. "You guys call a rat 'Father?'" I ask. Sometimes my mouth doesn't know when to quit. "Boy, family get-togethers must be tough. In-laws and distant relatives are bad enough, but when they're not even the same species-"

"Is it the spandex that makes ya so funny," Sai Guy interrupts, "or were ya just born with it?" I smile beneath the mask and am about to make a reference to the old Maybelline commercials, but another voice comes out of the darkness.

"Raph, what the heck are you doing?" Sai Guy turns back to look at the newcomer, who had come bearing a flashlight. He shines the bright light on me as Sai Guy—whose name is apparently "Raph"—claims that I knew something about this Splinter character. "I wouldn't doubt it," answers the new guy who I can't see because of the glare of the flashlight. "People like him always seem to know this kinda thing."

Raph asks what he means, but it looks like his orange-clad friend finally managed to get a good look at me. "Eep!" The girlish squeal elicits an uncertain laugh from me. Backing away, the creature says, "Raph, look! Lookit! His chest… the colors, the symbols! Holy shell, we were just interrogating Spider-Man!"

Raph glances back at me, and can see that his friend is right. Begrudgingly letting go of me, he takes a step back. I wave at him. "Hiya, boys. How's it hanging?"

"I have to admit," says the guy with the flashlight, "it's not unusual to spot a spider in the sewers, but I'm surprised to see you here. Trouble topside?"

Deciding that this whole thing was one of those weird cases where two people mistake the other for the bad guy when they're really just working towards different kinds of good, I respond, "Just a small-time robbery. I was wondering why I didn't sense any danger, but I think I know now. These two took care of it." Looking at the two creatures that were embarrassedly looking down, I tell them, "Thanks. And uh, sorry about going a little web-happy earlier."

"Shucks," states the one I had hit. "I actually got mistaken for a bad guy. That's kinda cool, when you think about it." I look him over for a moment. Thinking that he was reptilian wasn't too far off. A turtle. A giant turtle. And he's not the only such creature down here. Somehow, I don't think anyone would go through the trouble to mutate a turtle for the purpose of evil. Unless, y'know, the guy really liked turtles.

"I'm Donatello," says the one holding the flashlight. He lowers it a little, and I can see that he looks just like the other two, only with a purple mask. He also seems to have some kind of staff strapped to his back. It might have something to do with the flashlight, but I'm willing to bet that he's one of the more reasonable guys in the bunch. "That's Raphael, and that's Michelangelo."

"You can call me Mikey," Michelangelo pipes up with a smile as he grabs his thrown weapon.

"Right," I nod. "I'm sensing a theme here. Anyway, the name's Spider-Man, or Spidey, or the Amazing Wallcrawler, or That Blasted Vigilante Menace, depending on your sources. Somehow, though, I think at least two of you knew that."

"Hey, it's dark," Raphael complains. "All I know is that somebody hit my bro, and I wasn't gonna let somethin' happen to nobody else in the family. Okay? Jeez, ya come down here thinkin' you're some kinda celebrity, so-"

"Whoa, hey," I break in, raising my arms in defense. "Calm down a bit, okay? Mistaken identity on both parts, problem solved. I would've done the same thing in your situation, so you don't have to-"

"Take it easy, Spider-Man," Donatello tells me wearily. "He's always like that. Even more so since Splinter disappeared." Peering up at me hopefully, he inquired, "By the way, you wouldn't happen to know anything about that, would you?"

I shake my head. "Sorry. I would remember hearing anything about a big, gray, ninja rat, and that hasn't shown up on the radars lately."

"Whoa," Michelangelo gasps, "you have radars?"

"Mikey," Donatello mentions, "we've got radars, too."

"Yeah," Michelangelo answers, "but he's Spider-Man. He gets like, press coverage 'n stuff. That automatically makes him cooler." Looking at me with something akin to fan worship in his eyes, he asks, "Do you get paid for all your cool gadgets, or is your secret identity like some uber-rich tycoon, like the Winged Terror?"

"Heh," I mutter, not having the heart to tell him that the radar bit was just a figure of speech. "I've got a rich friend. Sounds like a cop-out, I know, but before this I was just subject to whatever I could scrape together from the junkyard. What a mess that was."

The three turtles look at me with a wry expression. I suddenly wonder where they get their equipment from, and realize that I already managed to stick my foot in my mouth. I must be the only guy who knows his face's shoe size. "You know," Raphael says dryly, "you sure ain't winnin' any brownie points with us, Spidey."

"So I've noticed," I reply. "At any rate, you look like a group of good guys, so I'm guessing this Splinter is one of the good guys too. I'll keep my ear to the ground and see if I can't find anything out. Is there anything else I should know about this?"

The three of them glance at one another before Donatello mentions, "Actually, yeah. There's a human in danger, too. One of our friends, April O'Neil. Her boyfriend Casey and our brother Leonardo are doing a topside sweep for both of them. Casey called the cops, but we're not pinning too many hopes on them."

"Besides," Raphael brings up, "if the cops do find 'em, we don't wanna have to explain a big, sentient rat being tied into all this. Anyone who'd take Splinter might just know more about us than we'd want the public to know."

"Right," Michelangelo throws in. "Stick to the shadows, and all that junk." When his brothers give him a reprimanding look, he decides to go momentarily serious. "Last we saw 'em, they were in our lair, watching something on TV. We went topside for a game of ninja tag and when we came back about an hour later, the place was trashed and they were nowhere to be found."

"None of my surveillance equipment seems to have picked up anything," Donatello adds, "and we couldn't find any clues. While Mikey and I straightened up the place, Leo and Raph went searching the sewers for them. None of us turned anything up. It's like they just… vanished."

I listened to all this intently, trying to get the story sorted out in my head. "Hm," I mutter. "Let me get back to my friend," I tell them at last, referring to Tony Stark, the man who also goes under the name Iron Man. "He's got plenty of good resources. I know someone who also keeps a journal with profiles on all of the baddies I've fought. If I come across anything that could be remotely linked to this problem, I'll let you know. If you didn't even find any blood or anything, they're both probably still alive and well. Someone wanting both a human girl and a humanoid rat can only be bad news."

"Exactly," Dontello tells me. "It leads me to believe that one of our old enemies who's known for genetic experimentation is behind this, but I really don't want to travel down that road. If you come up with anything, meet us tomorrow night in the alleyway just above these tunnels. Say, eight o'clock?"

Nodding again, I tell him, "It's a date." Turning to leave, I give Raphael one last look. He's still staring sulkily at the ground. "Remember, Romeo," I joke as I pat his shoulder, "I like flowers and chocolate." With another growl, he lunged at me. I managed to duck and dash for the exit.

I could just hear Michelangelo comment, "I like him. He's funny."