They hadn't been talking to Dakota for very long when the topic came up.
Will was there, and Clarisse, and Annabeth, and Frank, and for a while, Percy was happy - these moments felt precious, now, somehow; the moments where he could stop and breathe and simply be with his fellow campers. He was technically doing his job as head counselor of the Poseidon cabin, true, discussing things with the Roman campers and getting the finer details worked out peacefully, but it was a lot more relaxing than slicing monsters, and for that, he was infinitely grateful.
That is, of course, up until the subject came up - the same subject Percy resolutely pushed away every time the tide within him swelled and threatened to consume what was there. What he thought was there.
Frank was asking Will questions about the new body Hades had gifted him (don't ask), and Will was answering him happily.
"I'm shaped the way I was before - same valleys and same curves." Percy was suddenly startled by the memory that Will was trans, that Frank was, too. In fact, Percy thought, maybe everyone in the room was, besides himself. He wasn't sure about Dakota, though, and he'd never considered asking - it’s not really something you can bring up casually over lunch. "Mars made you," Will gestured vaguely, looking for a polite way to say it. "Different? When he changed your body?"
Frank shrugged, looking uncomfortable. "Well, yeah... It was the body I wanted - the body I'm still comfortable with. It's my body, and I guess the one before just... wasn't?" He scratched the back of his neck. "It's kind of weird, I guess, but I'm starting to get more comfortable with still seeing myself as a trans person, even though I’m … technically not?"
Will reached across the table with a casual, open palm, that easy sunrise smile on his face. "I'm glad... You'll always be trans, you know. You’ll always be a part of this community. It's less to do with body and more to do with experience, and, well," He shrugged his shoulders up to his ears, grinning sheepishly. "No matter what, I'm glad you can look like you," His face, still easy and friendly, shifted, his eyes hard like a warning, smile suddenly more full of teeth. "The way I do, too."
Frank smiled back, relaxing. "I'm glad you look like you, too."
Percy took in Will's willowy, lithe, lanky figure, his curly blond hair, his heart-shaped face. He couldn't imagine him looking like anyone else - when he thought of Will, he thought of easy smiles and cheap flip-flops and Nico's stolen T-shirts. Will still looked different than he had before - something about his face was shaped new, although Percy couldn't place it, and he seemed somehow even taller than he had been before. When Will jumped into the lake with them the other day, his binder had been gone, displaying two matching, jagged, pink scars on his chest; but Percy couldn't remember if those were actually new or not.
Dakota took a long sip of his Kool-aid, then said, almost as if to himself, "I wonder what I would look like?"
Percy blinked. "Are you trans?" He blurted, because he’s an idiot.
Will's eyes widened a bit, and Frank, although he hid it well, seemed a bit scandalized. Annabeth hit his right arm, the way she always did, and Clarisse hit his left, much harder than Annabeth ever would.
"Don't ask questions," growled Clarisse. "Unless they are invited, Fish Breath."
Percy raised both arms lightly in surrender, opening his mouth to apologize, but when his eyes met Dakota's, there was something strange in them, surrounded by mirth and framed by the humor in his face.
"Well," Dakota admitted. "I don't mind answering. I guess I'd say I'm closer to genderfluid."
Annabeth blinked widely, then asked, "Would you be comfortable describing your feelings to us?"
The smile on Dakota's face was small, almost thoughtful, and the left side of his face quirked up as if he was hiding something, something precious and made only for him - something that others should be jealous of.
"I..." He sighed, almost a laugh. "It's strange..." Or, maybe, the humor on his face was masking some kind of apprehension - or even shame. "Have you ever- Have you ever wondered what it would be like to run deep into the trees, as fast as you could, fast as any animal, as feral as any wild thing? To- To feel wind all around, and yet nowhere, to feel some predator on every corner while you yet hunt? Have you ever felt- Can't you just-" He laughed again, eyebrows coming together, eyes shut in concentration. His fingers gripped his flask of Kool-aid, his dark skin turning pale at the fingertip. "The ever-changing way of nature and the beasts she creates, the cycle of all what must be, it's...." He scoffed, then, opening his eyes, but refusing to look at anyone else. "It's silly."
The room was quiet, and Percy felt cold.
"You-" He swallowed, hard. His stomach felt dense and heavy. "You feel that, too?"
Dakota met his eyes then, pupils blown and face drawn into a strange expression - one Percy had never seen before. "You... You know what I'm talking about?"
Annabeth put her hand on his shoulder, but was quiet. Her silent support was appreciated, somewhere in the back of his mind, but he barely noticed it. He could feel everyone's eyes on him, but he looked only at Dakota.
"It's..." Percy struggled to find the words, although they had been struggling to find him all his life. "Do you know how... the sea at the shore is thin and clear, sometimes, how it moves so gently, but it won't stop? And... and how, far out into the horizon, the sea turns dark and wild and deep and-"
Percy didn't know what else to say. I am both of those things and more. A moment passed as they waited for him to continue. I am so much more than what I am.
Dakota was staring at him in something like awe, his round face drawn still into that same expression, mouth closed but lips parted, eyebrows pulled together as he stared.
Surprisingly, it was Clarisse who spoke first. "I know," she said. He looked in her direction, but not at her. Her voice was different than usual, not gentler, but more tender; the way she talked to her little brothers. "I know what you mean."
The others looked at him in something between understanding and confusion, all at once, but all with that soft curve of the eye that means the one thing that Percy feared and desired in equal measure: support.
The sea does not like to be restrained.
Will put a hand on his shoulder, opposite to Annabeth. His hand was soft and warm. "It was kind of like that for me, but not... quite the same. I didn't know what it was, but there was this rage inside me, like a burning sun, and I couldn't name it. Everything was wrong, and finally I just..." He bit his lip, gesturing with his free hand. "Well-" He laughed breathlessly, then gestured almost jokingly at himself. There was a happiness about him, a comfort that clung to him, that Percy desperately desired. "Well, you can put two and two together."
Annabeth leaned into his space, taking hold of his hand tightly. "It was different, for me. I don't know how to explain it, I just... I needed to fly, but I needed to do it while touching the ground. I was a caged bird, and you know I can't sing." She smiled at him, that small one that means she'd made a joke, and Percy laughed, just a little. Something strange and light was growing in his chest, something terrifying, and he clutched her hand for the fear of flying away himself.
Frank blinked, looking flabbergasted. "I don't have anything poetic," he admitted, looking confused and amazing and a bit (rather comically) frustrated. "I just knew I was a dude."
That made everyone laugh, then, all of Percy's friends falling into tiny, breathless giggles.
"You're valid, little bro," said Clarisse, crossing her arms over her chest again.
Will laughed, he and Annabeth nodding their agreement, as Dakota finally unfroze, lifting his flask up in a toast. "Cheers to Frank being valid! I'll drink to that, bro!" He took a long, hard swig of his Kool-aid, smacking his mouth and humming after he swallowed.
And then that was it, and the conversation carried on with Dakota being teased, and Dakota responding amicably, everyone laughing as the strange energy of the topic was left behind.
Percy wasn't sure how he felt - like a raging ocean, the unforgiving and never-still currents of the great blue wide beautiful terrifying - but he felt, briefly, relieved. He wanted to know more, wanted to understand the thing inside him, but... he needed time. One conversation wasn't enough, but it was a beginning, and for that, he was grateful.