Daniel is nine years old, and he dreams of flying. It's not a dream either of his parents particularly endorse, but it's a difficult afternoon for both parties when he's distracted from his multiplication with the view of a bird soaring on buffets of wind.
"Daniel," his father scolds, half angry, half defeated. "Please don't tell me that crows are more fascinating than this." The man takes off his glasses and fans himself with one beefy hand, a futile motion. In the background, the electric fan buzzes.
Dan turns his head towards his father, but his eyes don't quite reach, instead looking off to the side for a last glimpse of it. "No," he lies, automatically. Then, "Did you know that they don't actually have to flap their wings to fly, but they glide using the wind?" It's far more fascinating than any numbers.
"Yes. Where did you learn that?"
Dan's fingers, still small and clumsy, worry at the edge of his paper. "Library."
"That's very good. Now, finish your maths."
If Dan were a more vexing child, he would have sighed, but instead he merely nods, a bit mournfully. He always looks to please, and dutifully does his multiplication before making sure that both parents are out of eyeshot.
Almost reverently, he tears a piece of paper out of his notebook and folds it in precise lines. He adjusts the fan, readjusts it and tosses the paper into its line of vision. The plane soars, as if it will never fall, as if it were never a dull, sad, flat thing to write something as tedious at numbers on. Then it does fall, forming a graceful nosedive into the carpet.
Someday, Dan thinks, someday he wants to make a plane that will go on forever. A bird without feathers, a plane without sound.
When he goes outside to play with the pigeons, they bite him, but it doesn't hurt. He picks one up, one hand underneath its belly and the other allowing the clawed feet tickle against his hands. One snares his finger like a grappling hook, ready to take off into the blue sky that entreats them, content in the ignorance of the fact that his wings are clipped.
"Someday," he tells it, "I'm going to fly."
The pigeon stares at him belligerently, chortling in what he perceives to be the disbelief that everybody expresses when he says so. "It's true," he insists. "Just you wait." He pushes his new glasses up his nose, the frames comically large, magnifying the widened eyes behind the lenses.
He is small now, standing on the first step to his dreams, and the journey ahead looks long and perilous. But he’s got all his life, hasn’t he?
Daniel is fourteen years old, which is far too old for what his father calls flights of fancy, worn covers of comics, the myths he reads with a flashlight in the dead of the night, the flickering idealism that has disappeared from most of his peers, weathered and worn with false cynicism.
His father says that changing the world alone is impossible and scorns the superheroes of the day, shaking his head. "Son," he says. "They're idealists, and they'll be washed out before you know it."
No, Dan feels like protesting. They won't be washed out. They've made a difference. They're heroes. You don't understand. But they've had the conversation enough times for him to keep it in his head.
"There's a future in banking," he continues, "and that's done in numbers. I'm sure you'll be able to do very well."
Which is about the closest Dan's going to get to approval, so he nods his head and works on the numbers that line up monotonously like soldiers charging to the battlefield of sums.
If he were Nite Owl, well, nobody would talk down to him, for one. And he'd be big, and strong. People would fall over their own feet just to talk to him. He can see it now: grateful eyes rimmed with thick lashes, a firm handshake, a tentative smile, a whispered thanks.
And he wouldn't just fight crime, like his hero does. He'd be just like a real owl.
But dutifully, he works on numbers, like his father wants. There is little time for dreams, he's been told, but it doesn't stop him from looking into a few things. Flying means achieving what is impossible. If he can get up there, nothing on Earth can touch him, because he knows all there is to know about it up there. It's like a place all his own, and even if he's too old for it, sometimes he climbs to the highest branch and stretches his arms out, feeling the wind whistle through his fingers.
It means proving everybody wrong, and showing them that you really can do anything.
And he's already found a use for these pesky numbers, anyways.
That term, he gets close to perfect on every exam.
Daniel is eighteen years old, which some people may say is too old for dreams, but Dan never stopped. He still has his book of mythology, and he still believes that Nite Owl is as close as anybody is when it comes to reaching towards the heavens.
And Dan is closer than he's ever been. He realizes that he may not fit in with those at Harvard; for all his money, his uneasy smile and eager face framed with cowlicks betrays his uncertainty.
Still, it's like a dream come true. He is graded on his knowledge of the beasts he loves, he is graded upon what he knows of currents and the drafts of wind that come his way, and there is nothing he'd rather be doing.
His father has accepted his decision with a heady sigh and sad eyes, but for once, Dan finds that he doesn't care. He's climbing up the stairs to what he knows he has to do, and if others are hanging on by fingertips gone ruddy red from pressure, that's all right. Because if Dan believed in destiny (he doesn’t), he’d say this is it, and he can do it, and he will.
Every superhero started somewhere.
Daniel is twenty years old, and he's just begun his partnership with the mysterious man with the shifting face. He's Nite Owl, a superhero, and they've the bond of men working for a brighter tomorrow. It is more than Dan had ever hoped for. This is the top of the staircase, with wind whistling through his fingers. All that's left to do is leap.
"I won't be patrolling tomorrow," he says, conversationally upon their patrol.
Rorschach stops, stock still, and his head turns slowly towards him. Dan still hasn't gotten used to that faceless map of a thing, the swirling shapes echoes of the shadows that greet them. He says one word. "Why?"
This is all Dan needs to share his enthusiasm. "I've built a ship for us to use. You know, on our patrols. I'm taking him for his first trial tomorrow."
And he knows, he knows that Nite Owl strikes fear into the hearts of his enemies with the firm set of his mouth, the emotionless glass where there should be eyes, but he can't stifle the grin that threatens to take over his face. "Would you like to come?"
"No thanks," his partner rumbles. Then, questions, "He?"
In any other scenario, Dan would be disappointed. Now, though, absolutely nothing can kill his joy. "All right, man," he says, and chooses not to divulge the ship’s name, not yet.
The next night, he carefully maneuvers the thing out of the Owl's Nest. Archie rumbles beneath his touch, and he takes it for a quick spin around the neighborhood, first. It reacts beautifully underneath his touch. It's an entirely new partnership, not between men, but man and the sky. He marvels at having complete control over the rooftops of the city, streetlights winking at him like the shadows of a shooting star.
Well, if it's that reliable on the tight turns, he thinks, what can be the harm in one more go? He speeds up, veering ever higher, but the acceleration is too high, and the force of it ends up slamming him back into his seat, still unfurnished and pitifully without cushions.
There is a moment of panic - I'm going to hit somebody what if I crash what if I hit an animal oh god what if I can't stop? - but it's ruled out by the sheer exhilaration of it.
And in the end, he can't help it. He lets out a whoop of pure joy, the sound ringing and bouncing off the cavernous insides of Archie. He can feel his ears popping, the speed in his very being, and he lets himself continue screaming in delight.
He's jumped off the staircase, and he's falling, and it's the best thing he's ever felt, better than any roller coaster, any airplane, this is what it's like to be a bird, to be free, to be alive, and God help him, he never wants to stop.
Nothing can catch him now. Up here, he's invincible.
He doesn't stop until he finds his ship tangled in a billboard, smack dab in the middle of the gaudy cursive advertising a cologne that is certain to get you sex, apparently. Archie's not hurt, but the billboard is and he carefully steers his ship back into the garage before anybody notices.
Dan cannot sleep for the rest of the night. Every time he tries to lie down, he can feel the rush within his chest, how it felt, and all he wants to do is go flying again.
The next day, Rorschach does not ask him how it went, instead says, "You need to soundproof your ship."
"Oh," Dan says, cheerfully, "I'll get around to muffling the engine."
"Not the engine. You."
Dan pauses, remembers the open window and how his shouts seemed to wash across the whole city. In any other circumstance, he'd be embarrassed, but instead he laughs and laughs and cannot find it within him to stop.
Because he's not with Rorschach here in the alleyways that reek of bile and piss, of the homeless and the heartless. He's high, high above the clouds.
Daniel is forty years old, and he has long since hit the ground of defeat. He is happy, but no longer lingers above the clouds, does not dream like he used to, save for living the next day, being happy the next day, making a difference, somewhere, somehow.
Time is not something on his side; he knows he does not have forever, he knows that sometimes dreams fall to the floor. His did.
But sometimes, amidst the rubble and the wreckage, he stands and stares up at the sky and watches the birds fly.
Because if they're still flying, so can he.