Hitting Hard: Chapter 108-Epilogue, part 1
A/N: By popular (quasi) request... the beginning of the epilogue. We've skipped quite a few years here.
Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Kim Cunningham electronically signed three documents between walking through the door of the outer office of USD(P) and her inner sanctum, each of which she made an attempt to scan while dealing with the endless droning of her public affairs officer. "You have an interview with Life at 10, and then—"
"There's still a Life magazine?" Cunningham interrupted, putting on an innocent face at the exasperation of the man who tried to make her look good. As much as anyone could make an obscure undersecretary in a department filled with undersecretaries look good.
"They're doing a series on powerful women in Washington," he said in a tone that told her he had probably told her that a dozen times.
"Isn't that kinda sexist?" she asked with a frown. "Why does it have to be powerful women in Washington? Why can't I be a powerful person in Washington? And this isn't even Washington. Hell, it's not even DC. The Pentagon is physically located in Arlington, and that's Virginia."
"Is she always this difficult?" the PAO asked in exasperation as Colonel Louis Anderson entered the room.
"More so, usually," Anderson replied, barely giving the man a second glance as he focused his attention on Cunningham.
"Good, you're here," Cunningham said to her old friend, even though he always beat her to the office by at least an hour. Probably because his youngest was sixteen, with a driver's license and mode of transportation, whereas hers still required a chauffeur. "Pup told me in a moment of sleep-deprived weakness on the drive to the gym this morning that she's going to Homecoming with Davin. So tell your unreasonably large youngest child that if my daughter doesn't have a good time at that dance, that I will knock him on his seven foot tall ass." Both of their youngest children were at St. John's College High School, Davin Anderson a sophomore and Bethany Cunningham a freshman, and it was endlessly amusing to everyone in either family that the six-nine basketball player and five-nothing gymnast were good friends. Kim not-so-secretly hoped that they would date, just because it would be so funny.
"You just found out?" Anderson asked. "Davin told me three weeks ago. What color's her dress? Davin's not going to know that he's supposed to ask to match the corsage."
"We're going shopping for one over the weekend with Squid after the Navy soccer game. She's better at that stuff than I am. After all, I bought my wedding dress in the junior's section at Macy's. And the girls need the practice at shopping for dresses together."
"Is Squid in the market for a wedding dress?"
"It's bound to happen. I give it a year," Cunningham shrugged. "She's been dating Sam since they were plebes and they're still going strong. And you know that the Navy marries 'em young."
"Sorry to interrupt, Madam Secretary, Colonel," Kaytlin Schwartz, Cunningham's chief of staff, said as she poked her head into the office. "I just got off the phone with the chief of staff at the White House. They want you there at zero nine. You meaning Secretary Cunningham, not Colonel Anderson. Sorry, sir."
"I think it's her you should be apologizing to," Anderson commented.
"Right," Schwartz agreed. "I'll cancel the ten hundred with Life and see about rescheduling."
"Thanks, Kaytlin. Did the White House say what this urgent unscheduled meeting is about?"
"Do they ever have to?" Anderson asked.
"I bet it's China," Cunningham said darkly. "I hate China. I don't understand China. Things stopped making sense when I stopped being able to speak the same language as our enemies."
"Ironic, considering that if your people had been successful, China would be speaking Japanese."
"Very funny," she glowered.
"You don't need to understand China," Anderson reminded her. "You have a deputy assistant secretary who knows everything about China. And speaks the language."
"You fully updated on the China situation?" she asked. "And the answer to that better be 'yes', because I don't know why I would have a military special advisor if he wasn't prepared to advise me on special military issues."
"President Armstrong isn't going to be asking you about China's military," Anderson pointed out. "He's got the Joint Chiefs to answer those kinds of questions."
"Well, he might be asking me what our policy is on China's military, given that I'm supposed to know a thing or two about policy. I think it's even in my job description." He rolled his eyes. "Come on. You're with me. You can brief me on the ride over there."
"You want me to ride with you to the White House just to brief you and then sit in the car and wait for you to finish your meeting about whatever the hell your meeting is about?" he asked.
"Of course not," she scoffed. "Nobody said anything about waiting in the car. The West Wing has very good coffee. You can sit inside and wait for me while drinking it."
In the end, he talked her out of having to accompany her in by promising that he would brief her over the phone on the drive, and then she was off with her tablet and hopes that this meeting would be covering something she was confident about.
To her surprise, she was escorted directly into the Oval Office as soon as she walked through security, and to her further surprise, she was met there by President Armstrong, Vice President DiMarco, and a man she had never met. "Gentlemen," she said cautiously.
"Secretary Cunningham," President Armstrong greeted with a nod. "This is Jake Kunkle, the head of the RNC. Jake, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Kim Cunningham."
"It's nice to meet you, sir," Cunningham replied.
"Please," the President said, gesturing at a couch, "have a seat."
"Yes, sir," Cunningham replied as she sat, wondering what the hell was going on and why the head of the Republican National Committee was involved.
"How are the kids?" VP DiMarco asked.
"Doing well," Cunningham replied. "Sydney and Jack are on their respective varsity soccer teams at the Naval Academy, and Bethany's a freshman in high school now and is getting ready for her first national-level gymnastics meet." As much as she enjoyed talking about her kids, she doubted they called her into the Oval Office to do so.
"I bet you're wondering why you're here," President Armstrong commented. "Joe?"
"How are you with medical terms?" the VP asked her.
"Better than the average American, but that's probably not saying much."
"I was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme three weeks ago," DiMarco informed her. "It's a brain tumor, and it's inoperable."
"What are you going to do, sir?" she asked.
"What my son the neurologist advised me to do," DiMarco replied. "Retire to my house on the North Carolina coast, take walks on the beach, and surround myself with grandkids. I'm hoping to make it as peaceful and painless as possible. The doctors said I have between six weeks and six months, probably closer to the shorter end."
"I'm sorry, sir," she said honestly.
"This means we're going to need a new vice president," Armstrong stepped in. "Kim, you're on the short list. Actually, you are the short list."
She frowned, trying to comprehend his words. "For the vice presidency?" she asked in disbelief. "But, why?"
"That's why I'm here," Kunkle stepped in. "Politically, you would be the ideal VP candidate for the re-election campaign. You have military experience and a strong military history in your family, which with the tensions surrounding China would be reassuring to the voters given the President's lack of military experience, and polls show that Americans are likely to support candidates of Asian ethnicity. You're from the west coast, which is viewed as a balance to the President being from New York. You're a woman—"
"But I'm not a politician," she interrupted, deciding that she didn't want to listen to the lists of qualities that had nothing to do with accomplishments and how they did in the polls. She was also choosing to ignore the fact that her Asian ethnicity had nothing to do with the very large country they were currently tiptoeing toward war with. "I never have been. I didn't even run for office in high school."
"Which is perfect," the President said. "Americans have been saying for decades that they're tired of politicians who make good speeches and empty promises, but every election year, that's who they elect. Myself included. You're brutally honest; it's refreshing, and you don't have to explain away any contradictory promises, because you've never made any."
"I don't want this. No offense, sir, but I don't. At all."
"Nobody who should be in this office wants it. Who the hell would put himself through all that?" President Armstrong asked.
"You're not exactly selling it, sir," she informed him. She sighed. "Sir, I have no desire to be in the public spotlight or to put my family in it. Jeff, my husband, was engaged to someone in a political family—"
"Yes, Senator Bradley-James. We're aware," Kunkle interrupted.
"Are you also aware he hated it?" she asked. "He hated the attention and the political dinners, and there's no way I put him through that unless he's okay with it. And I have three children. Two are still teenagers, and one's in high school, and I don't know if I want to put them into that kind of fishbowl. They're all going for military careers, and there's nothing worse than being related to somebody in power when you're a junior officer. One of my friends was the son of a general, and we gave him hell about it."
"Talk to your family," DiMarco suggested gently. "I don't think any of us in this room can tell you how to do that, since we've always been in politics, but I know that you'd be good for this job. You've worked for the government your entire life and know the ins and outs, but never got your hands dirty with the politics. It's just like the President said; that's refreshing."
She frowned. "Let's move forward as if you agree," Kunkle said, interrupting the storm of thoughts swirling through her head. "Congress is going to dig up everything about your past, so we need to know all the skeletons you're keeping in your closet so we aren't surprised by any of them."
"Skeletons," she murmured. She cleared her throat. "Okay. Well, I had my first beer when I was thirteen. My oldest brothers bought it for me, and I was drinking fairly regularly at sixteen. I stopped when I got to college, until I turned twenty-one, because I didn't want to lose any of my scholarships. I've never done any other drugs. Never even tried marijuana. I guess all of my skeletons have to do with sex." She frowned. "I slept with an assistant coach of my soccer team when I was in college and a fellow second lieutenant when I was at TBS—The Basic School, at Quantico. Jeff and I were sleeping together when we were deployed to Iraq together, and we were broken up for over four years after we got back, during which time I slept with one of my bosses at NCIS, when I was stationed in Bahrain." She frowned again. "None of that is really all that damning, I guess, but…" she took a deep breath, "when I was a platoon leader during my first deployment to Iraq, I slept with one of my sergeants. Nobody knew, and even today, the only people who know are Jeff, the sergeant, and a retired NCIS agent. And now you three."
"I don't see what's so bad—"
"That's because you were never a military officer," DiMarco interrupted Kunkle. "Would he come forward with that?" he asked her.
"No," she said. "We agreed to never talk about it. He wasn't married during the deployment, but he did have a girlfriend back home, and he married her when he got back. He didn't want her to know."
"And nobody in your unit knew?"
"Not that anybody's said in thirty years," she replied. "If anyone wanted to ruin me with that, they could have done it while I was still in uniform. Or during any of my other congressional approvals." She had been through this process three times already, to be a deputy assistant secretary, followed by assistant secretary and now under secretary.
"We already discussed your husband's previous engagement," Kunkle said. "Was he still engaged when you began seeing each other?"
"No," she said emphatically. "Absolutely not. He hadn't been broken up long, but he was broken up."
"And who ended the engagement?"
"She did. Over the phone in the clinic, I might add."
"Your first daughter was born eight months after your wedding," Kunkle continued.
"She was five weeks early," Cunningham replied. "It's all over her medical records. She weighed four pounds. I wasn't pregnant when we got married, but we were living together."
"Gunnar Anderson is a family friend."
"Yes," she said with a nod. "He's the son of my special military adviser, who is one of my closest friends. But I don't see what knowing a player for the Washington Wizards has to do with anything."
"Would he be interested in helping with the campaign if you were on the ticket?"
And that question was the point that it had gone too far. "I can't even wrap my head around what's going on right now, I haven't agreed to anything, I still haven't figured out how to tell my husband and kids that this conversation even happened, and you're asking if my brother's godson will join me on the campaign trail in three years?" she asked incredulously.
"Let's break for today," President Armstrong suggested gently. "Give it a week to talk it over with your family and let it sink in with everyone. We'll meet back here a week from today. I wish we had more time than that, but we don't. Does that work for everyone?" He got nods around the room, which was the usual reaction when the President of the United States asked a question. "Okay. Thank you for coming, Madam Secretary."
"Thank you, Mr. President," she replied automatically as she rose to her feet. "I will see you in a week."
They wanted her to be the Vice President of the United States. And she didn't know for sure that she didn't want the job.