The first time that Brian from school called her a dyke and laughed, Tamora was in First Grade and didn't know what it meant. She hit him anyway, because that usually worked, and indeed he cried and held his nose and called for his Mommy.
He didn't dare tell, though. Everyone knew what Tamora did to snitches.
"What's a dyke?" she asked Brad later, when they were looking out at the stars from one of the observation decks. Brad was from the same ship arm and in the year above her at school and knew everything.
"Means you like girls," Brad replied. Tamora frowned at him. "Like, you like girls," he said, emphasising the word until she got the gist.
Tamora cocked her head to one side to consider the idea, then wrinkled her nose and leant back on her hands. She had her feet pressed right against the clear window, a sign of her boldness when the other kids at school still thought your hand froze off if you touched one. "Nah. Girls don't want to shoot xenos on the holodeck."
"D'you wanna go see my brother's spiders?"
That sounded like a good idea. Tamora nodded firmly, and only shouted at Brad for running off because she had to put her shoes back on before she could run after him.
By Fourth Grade, when Charlie from the year above called her a carpet muncher, she punched him in the balls so hard that he spoke in a high voice for the next three days and she was put in detention for it.
She knew by then that it was probably mostly because she could punch so hard. And run so fast, jump so high, fight so fiercely.
"I'm gonna join the Space Marines when I'm older," she told Brad. "I want to set records."
Brad didn't laugh at her so much as just grin. "I bet you will."
She started dating Brad when she was sixteen and he was seventeen, and oh but the girls were jealous of her for it. Of course, they were probably jealous as well that she had the figure of a model, legs that went on forever, and eyes that could stop boys in their tracks. She wore lipgloss like armour and high heels like weapons, and could still knock Charlie from grade school onto his ass when he tried to grope her at Brad's senior prom.
"So do you think that I'm straight or not?" she asked, looking at him with one arched brow while he tried to get to his feet with some dignity.
He didn't even manage to answer before Brad wandered over and slipped his arm around her waist. "Hey, babe. Is there a problem?"
Even Tamora wasn't above smirking at Charlie just for a moment. "Not at all."
When Brad went into the Marines, she teased him about stealing her ideas, but mostly itched for the extra year to pass so that she could follow him. He went into the research branch, fast-tracked to a Doctorate for the work that he put into Cy-Bug weaknesses, while she knew that she'd be infantry through-and-through, but she didn't let him off that easily. When he got his comms access, she was one of the people that he holocalled, and they hung on right to the last seconds of his allotted time.
She handled basic duty perhaps the best of any woman in the group. Not that it was easy, it wasn't supposed to be easy, but it feels natural and fluid and she enjoys the burn in her muscles that it brings out.
Okay, so the uniform wasn't flattering, but it was never meant to be. The weight of the armour was like a constant reminder of her strength, and her CO, Captain Buzz Lightyear, said that she could have been a sniper if she wanted.
The short hop from her home station to the training station didn't really count as interstellar travel, not compared to the hyperdrive skip that was needed to get to the base that she'd call her home for the five years of her tour. Some of the other men and women were blasé about it all, while others were terrified, and a third group clung to the windows and watched in wonder as the stars jerked by. Tamora sat back on one of the chairs, stretched her legs out in front of her, and watched the people as much as the stars with a faint smile on her face.
She hadn't expected to be allowed to go to the Cy-Bug front line sector, not when Brad (sorry, Doctor Brad Scott) was already out there. Conflict of interest, she expected to hear. But the friendships in her unit had developed thick and fast, and she supposed that a friend from before the Marines wasn't any more of a liability than a friend met during.
When she saw Brad again on the base, she played it cool, but couldn't tear her eyes away from his. It was a matter of hours before they snuck away to find some time and space alone.
"You are dynamite," he breathed between their kisses. She didn't bother to answer with anything more than a smirk.
Life on the base wasn't easy, but she hadn't exactly expected it to be. The terraforming of the planet was only half-completed, the atmosphere breathable but the ground in this area not ready for cultivation, and of course some idiot a few years back had gone and uncovered a nest of hibernating Cy-Bugs. The civilian population, the first settlers of the planet, had been all but wiped out -- those that remained were as tough and grim-eyed as any Marine, and as handy with a gun as well.
The worst part was the dark. The Cy-Bugs were attracted to light, so after the sun set there had to be a blackout on the base. Night-vision goggles only when outside. They made patrol a nightmare, cut off your peripheral vision and took away your depth perception. But it was better than the alternative.
Brad's team was working on a way to discover dormant nests without awakening them. In the first three years that Tamora was on the base, they found four nests, and only one of them was even partially disturbed before the Marines went in hard and fast with plasma guns and proton weapons.
It didn't stop them from learning some things the hard way.
The Cy-bugs evolved fast and reproduced faster, and within just months on the planet they were seeing strains that they had never come across before. Bugs with armoured shells that gave only the smallest of targets -- eyes, mouth, ass -- to aim for. Bugs with such terrible toxins that one bite would set a man's limb rotting off before their very eyes. Bugs with proboscis so sharp that they could punch through all but the heaviest armour, and every helmet that they tried to create.
Tamora rose through the ranks fast and hard, hitting Sergeant in just under four years. She was decorated for bravery, more than once, and probably saved Markowski's life when she cut off his lower left leg before the toxin of the bugs spread any higher. Not that Markowski wanted to see her again, and she understood, but she figured it was better to be alive than part-digested.
Brad proposed to her on one of the rare occasions when they managed to be off-duty at the same time. They were in his bed -- the scientists got better quarters than the corps, and bigger beds -- and she didn't hesitate for a moment before accepting and throwing her arms around his neck to kiss him again.
"I think I've found the best day of my life," she said, trying on the ring. It was a bit big, but they could get that fixed once their tours ended. Wasn't like she could wear jewellery until then anyway.
"The best?" Brad cocked an eyebrow.
"Until we get married," she answered with a sigh. "Dumbass."
"Oh, come on," he scoffed. "You're the grunt with the gun."
Tamora grinned. "You'd be the one to know something about grunting, wouldn't you?"
She stayed there the whole night and was exhausted by the time that she did patrol the next day. But it was always, always worth it.
Brad insisted that they do things right. Get married in the chapel on base, with their friends in attendance and family watching through holo-feeds. Find a suit and a dress (and though Tamora wouldn't admit it, she had really missed the swishing-soft feel of dresses and skirts) and someone who could make a cake without trashing the entirety of the kitchens.
There had been rumblings under the ground and possible Cy-bug sightings on the scanners lately, and they'd been running three patrols a day to keep up with them. As much as Tamora had tried to get the rota changed, she was down to do the midday patrol.
Just one hour before she was supposed to get married.
Sure, Brad would marry her anyway if she turned up to the church in armour and covered in dust and sweat, but for once she wanted to be allowed to be feminine. To be a bride. One more laugh at Mike and Charlie and all the other assholes across the years who'd called her a lesbian just because she wasn't interested in them. Yeah, right. It was just that they were idiots.
Unlike Brad. She smiled softly and looked from her combat gear, crumpled on the bed, to her wedding dress hanging on the wall in a clear plastic sheath.
One day, that was all.
It turned out, it only took one day. They weren't allowed to carry weapons in the chapel, that was the fucking worst of it, so when the Cy-bug crashed through the stained glass window and roared there was scrambling and rather un-Marine-like screaming.
Some of it might have been coming from Tamora, she realised. Because blood splattered on her wedding dress and that was Brad's blood, she couldn't even think, but for all her desire to look feminine it had felt wrong to not have a gun on her thigh. She tore the seam of her dress, pulled out the plasma pistol, and might have still been screaming as she shot the Cy-bug's eyes, over and over again, until the battery on her gun was empty and it was just an empty corpse with a smoking crater for its head, ribbons of flesh hanging from its pincers.
She didn't collapse. Captain Lightyear didn't so much lead her out as dragged her out, as through her red-misted vision she tried to get back to the Cy-bug to kill it again and again and again.
"You should talk to someone, Sergeant," said Captain Lightyear. She couldn't look round to face him.
"I fucked up, Captain. I should have run that patrol, and I didn't."
"A mistake, Sergeant. Not something that you should blame yourself for."
Tamora transferred further out, to the Arcadia region where the Cy-bug nests were thick and fast-evolving, and fought harder and fiercer than she ever had before. Struck back for everything that they had taken from her, made sure that no-one else would ever feel the same.
She wasn't sure whether or not it helped, but when she had the buzz of the adrenaline and the knowledge that she was better than those xeno freaks she could keep going. She wasn't dead yet.
The end of her five years came around, and her new captain Smollet gave her a long calculating look when she signed up for another tour.
"I'm not going back to a civilian life while those things are out there, Captain," she said.
"You might be fighting for a long time, Calhoun."
That wasn't the part that frightened her. "I know."