Forty years ago – before there were the Brothers Grimm – there were the brothers Cahill; lab rats created in hopes of duplicating the Army’s Captain America Program. The project was funded primarily by Howard Stark, rumored among the scientists to have been a friend of the actual Captain America. The geneticist in charge, however, was one Dr. Frank Cahill, and it was he who was responsible for the creation of the brothers themselves. There were five brothers in total, born and raised in a lab under the Hoover Dam, each of them tended to and protected by a young woman known to her superiors as Mary Peters.
Project Cahill was created to breed an Alpha Team for the Army of enhanced soldiers, each born with a specific function and bred to have all the traits best able to fulfill this function. The first three of the brothers had been unequivocal successes, each shaped by minimal genetic enhancement. William Michael Cahill was born first, born to be the leader of the brothers and bred to be super intelligent, highly analytical, and a first rate officer. Barney Joshua Cahill followed two years after, born to be the questioning second in command, rebellious and insubordinate. Jason Leonard Cahill came another two years after Barney, born to be the brothers’ tech support and designed to be smart, responsible, and adaptable.
After these successes, the doctors and scientists began to get more inventive with their creations, playing God much more liberally in an attempt to make even more perfect soldiers. Kenneth James Cahill had been born to be the weapons and demolitions expert and had been bred to be physically strong, loyal and easily impressionable. Unfortunately, not a lot of time had been paid to his intelligence while they’d been manipulating his genome. As a result, the presiding authority over the project, General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, considered him to be a failure as he failed IQ test after IQ test despite his prowess within the field he’d been born to fill. Ross ordered the boy terminated; an order that would shape the futures of the Brothers Grimm more than any other occurrence in their lives.
Clinton Francis Cahill was born next. He’d been created to be their sniper and had been bred with visual enhancements that would assist in making him the best at the job. The tinkering had improved his optical acuity a hundredfold, though it had had a negative effect upon his auditory receptors in that he was mostly deaf upon his birth. Fortunately, his aural acuity was considered expendable when the only purpose to his creation was to be able to see very long distances and to shoot things with 100% accuracy. Clint was two weeks away from his third birthday when the woman the project authorities knew only as “Mary Peters” kidnapped the brothers and escaped with them from the lab in order to save Kenneth from the extermination General Ross had in store for him.
“Mary Peters” was the pseudonym given to Marina Ivanovna Petrovka, a Soviet assassin and spy, by her handlers when they ordered her to take the position as Stark’s assistant on the project. Marina Petrovka had been taken from her family at the age of four and handed into the dubious care of the Academy. The Academy then enrolled the four year old into their Red Room Program. They enhanced her, they molded her and they trained her to be a perfect spy for Mother Russia, all of it for the sole betterment of her handlers. The assignment was her first solo mission. She was sent to spy on Stark and report on his projects; instead she fell completely in love with the children created by the program, from the very first moment Stark placed an infant William in her arms and told her to care for him and all of the other children the project would inevitably produce.
Despite the deception she perpetrated against her superiors, Marina Petrovka was the only adult who had never lied to the five young boys in her charge. She was arguably the only one within the project to love them and treat them as children. Unlike the rest of her contemporaries, she never once treated them as weapons to be molded and used. She taught them to speak Russian, offering them each a secret language to protect their secrets from the hostile eyes that followed them everywhere. When it came to light that the youngest of the brothers had a very limited audible range, Marina insisted to her superiors that each of them should be required to learn ASL, so as to be able to communicate effectively with the hearing impaired child. Marina argued relentlessly with General Ross and Dr Cahill about allowing the children some amount of playtime, even if it had been only a slight handful of minutes that never seemed to last very long. She encouraged them in the training Ross imposed on them, held their hands through the countless physicals and exams that Dr. Cahill put them through, helped them with the simple things that children needed to learn as they grew up, tutored them in their academic studies, and practiced their hand to hand techniques with them. She was a loving, constant presence in each of their lives, and the boys were utterly devoted and fiercely loyal because of it.
At the time of their escape, William was 12, Barney was 10, Jason was eight, Kenneth was barely six years old and Clint was almost three; and yet they could barely be called children. The four oldest boys had all begun training within their fields as soon as they’d turned four years old. Only Clint had been spared the rigorous training that Ross had forced upon the project’s creations as he’d been too young at the time of their escape. The only constant they’d ever had was Marina Ivanovna Petrovka, who had spent her own childhood immersed within a government training curriculum designed to transform a precocious four year old into a remorseless killing machine. The very act of pretending to be normal children was the hardest lesson they ever had to learn.
They’d stumbled around for awhile, torn between trying to hide from the Army and trying to survive. After being on their own for a little more than a year, the six of them – each strange and unnatural in their own way – finally found refuge with Carter’s Circus. The Carters were a kindly older couple who took them in and gave them an extended, if odd, family of sorts. Marina left the name “Mary Peters” behind, effectively defecting from the KGB in all ways that mattered. Mrs. Carter, a warm and gentle woman they each came to call Babushka, teased the brothers relentlessly for their grim outlook on life, earning the brothers the last name of Grimm and the collective moniker of “The Brothers Grimm.”
The circus became their home, the closest thing any of them had ever had to one. Barney fell under the wing of a pair of side show artists named Swordsman and Trickshot, who trained him to assist the pair in their act. William used his analytical training to take over the accounting from Mr. Carter, to whom math was a bothersome and always avoidable chore. Jason became the Carters’ go-to mechanic and electrician, able to repair anything from a blown out fuse to their ancient PA system. Kenneth loved working with the animals, and even the most severe trainers adored the cheerful boy with the megawatt grin. Clint could always be found on Marina’s heels as she moved about the chores she’d been assigned by Mrs. Carter, talking in Russian at a mile a minute just so that Marina would know he was there. At the end of the day though, each of the boys remained firmly under Marina’s care and tutelage as she continued the academic tutoring and combat training the Army had implemented for them while they’d still been under the Army’s control.
It was when William turned 18 that everything changed. It was June 12, 1985, when Will walked into the tiny railcar that housed the six members of their odd little family. Marina was sitting at the table with Kenny; the two of them were working on the 11 year old’s math homework. It was no secret that Kenneth was not at the same intellectual level academically as the rest of his brothers, but he was in no way stupid. Will had kicked the asses of several of the other carnies for suggesting otherwise. Kenny looked up at the sound of the door, the wide bright grin on his lips lighting up the room at the sight of his oldest brother. “Will!”
Will chuckled, coming over to ruffle the younger boy’s blond hair. “Hey Kenny. How’s it coming?”
Marina’s smile was indulgent and fond as she caressed the 11 year old’s temple, “He’s getting it. Slow and steady wins the race, right, solnechnyy svet?”
Kenny’s nod was so emphatic, Will thought he was going to shake his head right off his shoulders for a second. “That’s great, Kenny. I’m proud of you.” Crouching next to the table, Will looked up into Kenny’s face with a soft smile, “Can you work on the next problem while I steal Marina for a second?”
Marina’s eyes narrowed lightly, and Will gave her a sheepish smile. If Will had a best friend, he would be forced to admit that Marina was probably it. He’d never been able to lie to her, even when he’d used her to practice on, and it looked like she was already onto him. Kenny nodded again, “Okay, Will.”
Kenny was already turning his attention back to the next question on his assignment as Will stood and offered a hand to Marina to assist her from the chair. Mercifully, Marina said nothing as she accepted the hand and followed him back into the tiny broom closet she’d converted into her bedroom. The railcar only had two actual bedrooms, and the boys split them between the five of them; Will, Clint and Kenny shared one while Jason and Barney shared the other. Sitting down on her tiny cot, she looked up at him with arms crossed over her chest and a wary frown on her lips. “All right, Misha; what are you kicking around in that brain of yours?”
Will faltered at the term; the diminutive of his middle name was Marina’s alone and he never failed to fall even more in love with her whenever she used it. He took a deep breath and sat down next to her. Reaching out, he took one of her hands and held it tightly for a moment as he tried to figure out exactly what he wanted to say to her. “Marina, I want to join the Army.”
The pretty brunette blinked once, visibly taken aback by the statement. Once it registered, her whole body relaxed and she regarded him with a steady calm that sent chills up his spine. “The Army? Surely you don’t mean the same Army that manipulated and abused you and your brothers simply for no other reason than because they created you, they owned you.”
The young man grimaced at her overly polite tone; he’d known that this conversation was not going to go over well, but he’d hoped that she would at least be able to accept the decision in the long run. “Yes, I mean that Army. Look, I’m not going to enlist as William Cahill; that would be stupid. I’d enlist as William Grimm; Mr. Stark created entire identities for us with valid social security numbers and birth certificates and documentation. And to be frank, it’s probably the last place the Army would think to look for me.”
Marina grunted, unable to deny that at least. She sat for a long moment, just watching him as she processed the request and examined every argument he could make from every angle she could find. Finally, she sighed and squeezed his hand once in reassurance, before asking, “Why, Misha? Why the Army?”
“I feel like I can do more. Despite how and why I was created, I am American and I believe that I have the potential to do more than this.”
“This; be a carnie. I can do something to help people, to be a better person than the Army created me to be. I want to take what they spent my childhood drilling into me for their own purposes, and do something for the good of mankind.”
“What about the boys?”
“You’ll be here. I know you, Marina, you’d never leave them. And it’s not like I’ll never come back. Whenever I have leave, I’ll find the circus and I’ll be here, I promise.”
“And what are you going to tell the boys about why you’re leaving?”
“Same thing I’m telling you. I want to do more than this. I will always be grateful to Babushka and Dedushka and the crazy circus freaks we call family, but I want more.”
Marina nodded slowly, reaching up to brush a strand of blond hair from his forehead. Cupping his cheek in her palm, she brushed her thumb tenderly over his skin. “All right.”
Will’s whole being brightened at her acceptance, his body straightening and practically vibrating with his excitement. “Really?!”
“Really,” she sighed quietly, “If this is what you want, Misha, I won’t stand in your way. Just promise me you’ll be careful. They’re still hunting for you and the boys; you and I both know that. Don’t do anything that would lead them to make connections between ‘William Grimm’ and ‘William Cahill,’ okay? If they take you into custody, there’s nothing that I can do. I won’t risk the other boys, to come and rescue you.”
Will shook his head with a grin, throwing his arms around her and hugging her fiercely. “I wouldn’t expect you to. I’ll be careful, Marina, I promise.”
Marina’s voice was quiet and troubled as she held him tightly, “You’d better. Because I honestly don’t know what I’d do if anything ever happened to you. So be safe, and come home as often, and in as few pieces, as you can.”
There was a soft choke from the young man, his arms squeezing her tightly for a moment as he nodded against the curve of her temple. “I promise, Marishka; and I’ll be back before you even have time to miss me.”
Marina smiled sadly at Will’s use of the Russian endearment; Will Grimm was the straightforward sort, and this was the first time he’d ever called her by the nickname that Clint had been using since he first learned her name. Tightening her arms around him, she buried her nose in his t-shirt and inhaled him as deeply as she could, “I doubt that, Misha; I doubt that very much.”