The colonel was at loose ends this Christmas. Walker, Bartowski and the Bartowski-Woodcombs had left the previous morning for a ski holiday and weren't due back until the 29th of December. Oh, sure, they invited Casey along, but he had suddenly felt like a fifth wheel, which was stupid, considering Chuck and Sarah weren't technically a couple. It was hard to tell these days, though. Walker sure was a good actress. Or maybe a lot less of her cover had to depend on acting now than it used to.

Also that old bullet wound in his hip had a tendency to act up in cold and damp weather, so the last thing he wanted to do was hurl himself down the side of a mountain with two narrow sticks strapped to his feet into piles and piles of snow. Even the prospect of running into lots of cute little snow bunnies looking for a temporary father figure wasn't enough to trump the ache that began to throb a bit just thinking about the cold. Boy, was he getting old.

So here Casey sat once again, alone in front of the television set, watching Hellcats of the Navy (starring one Ronald Reagan and his future wife and First Lady Nancy Davis), a decidedly odd film to be shown on the day before Christmas, but it was early, two in the morning, in point of fact, so there was still plenty of time for seven or eight showings of It's a Wonderful Life later in the day.

The film had about twenty more minutes to go and Casey had decided to watch it until the end and then sleep for a couple of hours when a picture of General Beckman suddenly appeared on the screen. Apparently the woman never slept and never wrinkled her uniform, and it took Casey a moment while pondering this to remember that he was sitting in front of the television wearing only an undershirt, a pair of boxer shorts and a robe that he had left undone and open so he could be comfortable.

The general's expression remained stern as usual, but Casey could have sworn he saw a twinkle of amusement in her eyes as he hurriedly jumped to his feet and closed his robe, securing the belt tightly in place while shouting "General!" in his alarm.

"Hardly regulation Marines issue, Colonel," she observed dryly before turning her gaze to a folder on the desk in front of herself and then back to the now-composed Casey. "You may sit," she added as an afterthought.

"Colonel," she began once Casey was sitting again, "I have a special assignment for you this afternoon. It's very delicate and a bit outside of your usual skill set, but I'm sure you'll be able to handle it."

"Got a problem that needs looking after?" Casey inquired, his eagerness evident in his voice as a few termination scenarios ran through his head.

"In a manner of speaking, yes," the General responded. "We're at the need-to-know stage, so please be at Headquarters in Washington this morning. Your flight leaves LAX in two hours."

"Anything special I should bring, General?" Casey inquired. He'd just gotten himself a really nice piece as a Christmas present and was dying to try it out in the field. Well, the other guy would be dying if he tried it out in the field, at least.

"Nothing in particular, Colonel. Just what you're comfortable with on your person. No need to get airport security excited."

Casey's face fell a bit at this news but he brightened up again when the general continued with, "We'll have everything you need right here waiting for you."

Casey approached the ticket counter at LAX precisely one hour, forty-five minutes later with an air of purpose and single-minded determination that immediately caught the attention of one of the two women working there. Just as he was about to join the end of the line, she beckoned to him to approach, and he could almost feel the glares of the other travelers as they watched him walk ahead of them to the front of the line.

"Mr. Francis?" the woman inquired, eyebrows raised, and at Casey's terse reply of "Yes," she unlocked a small swinging partition and directed him to an unmarked door towards the back on the opposite side to the one the regular passengers were going through.

Once past the frosted glass, Casey was greeted by a naval attaché, a pert and pretty brunette who barely came up to his elbow. They showed each other their NSA I.D. badges and Casey managed to read "Monica Trent" before she tucked it back into a concealed pocket in her flight attendant uniform.

Wow, Casey thought, this must be some important mission if I get a personal escort, and he followed her along a short corridor to the entrance to the plane's gangway.

Casey seemed to be so important, in fact, that the rest of the passengers were being asked to wait so he could board first, and they craned their necks and grumbled a bit as they watched the apparent VIP stride along the square tube and out of sight around a corner.

Once inside the plane's passenger compartment, Monica led Casey to First Class and settled him into one of the large, comfortable chairs next to a window. She took his small grip and stowed it in an overhead compartment, then inquired whether he wanted anything to eat or drink. After she had delivered the requested coffee and muffin, the woman slid into the seat beside him and buckled her seat belt.

"So are you my escort or my guard?" Casey asked, amusement causing his mouth to curl up at the outside edges.

"Both," the woman replied as she took a moment to inspect his face. "No sudden moves, now," she joked. She then turned around a bit in her seat so she could look at Casey head on.

"Beauregard Francis?" she inquired, eyebrows raised and eyes twinkling.

"Mother has a sense of humor," Casey replied, and he flashed her one of his most charming smiles as he sipped his coffee.

Once the other passengers were loaded and settled, they were in the air in a matter of moments. After only a few minutes' chatting with Monica, Casey was sorry that the flight was going to be so short. He quickly scribbled a phone number on an airline napkin and handed it to her, hoping that she would call him once the mission was over. She promised she would, giving Casey a look at the same time that told him she was a bit in awe of him. This VIP thing was a rush. No wonder rich old guys always got the classiest women. Power was like catnip, apparently.

As it seemed that Monica's assignment, notwithstanding the uniform, was to look after Casey and Casey alone, he decided to just enjoy her company for the rest of their time aloft. So it came as a bit of a disappointment when the pilot announced their imminent landing and the end to the pleasant conversation Casey had been enjoying.

And when they were once again on the ground, Monica shifted into high gear. She took Casey and his bag off of the plane first, out through a back way and into a waiting staff car, which whisked them to Headquarters in no time flat. They were driven straight to a back entrance and walked from there into the bowels of the building, right up to General Beckman, who was standing in front of a gray metal door impatiently awaiting Casey's arrival.

"Good. You're here," was all she said. Casey opened the door and allowed his superior officer to pass through first followed by Monica. The colonel followed close behind the two women, then let the door swing shut after himself.

"Now, Colonel, you two can change in here and Trent will bring you upstairs when you're ready," General Beckman directed.

"When will I be briefed on the mission, General?" Casey inquired as he stood and looked around the room at the equipment and supplies laid out there.

"As I've already mentioned, Colonel, need to know. I'll see you both again upstairs."

Turning on her heel, the general left the agent and the attaché to allow them to prepare.

"Well, let's get to it, then," Monica declared, walking over to a corner of the room that appeared to contain what she was going to need for the mission.

"Righto," Casey said, turning to what seemed to be his section.

They each had a countertop along a wall covered with long mirrors and bright, uncovered light bulbs. Beside Casey's chair was a pair of heavy black, rather ungainly looking boots. There was a type of personal security vest draped over the back of the chair, and Casey pulled the straps from around the corners and hefted it. Surprisingly light. Must be made of some new material. Those guys in R&D worked pretty much non-stop these days.

Casey glanced towards Monica, who had plunged right in and already removed her flight attendant uniform. He took a moment to admire the appropriately colored red lace bra and panties that were all she was wearing, and when she caught his look in the mirror, she smiled back wickedly before saying, "Good little boys don't get to open their presents before Christmas."

"What about bad little boys?" Casey inquired, shooting her his naughty devil face, and he laughed for a moment when she did, then turned his attention back to the task at hand.

Casey began stripping off his clothes – first his shoes, then his trousers, jacket and shirt – before putting on the vest, pants, boots, coat and belt provided. While doing this, he transferred the couple of small handguns and knives that he had worn while traveling to spots that the new outfit accommodated, then unzipped his bag and pulled out two more small pieces and a neat set of daggers and concealed them in the boots and under the belt.

"You probably won't need all that, you know," Monica commented. She had almost finished dressing already. It seemed that her costume wasn't as complicated as Casey's and certainly not as concealing. He took another look to admire her compact, muscular form.

"Better safe than sorry," Casey replied as he sat to complete the disguise. Glasses. Powder for his cheeks to reduce glare. Some facial hair to glue on with spirit gum. Even a hat. His own mother wouldn't recognize him now. He could barely recognize himself.

When they had put the final touches on their disguises, Casey and Monica took a nearby elevator up to the ground floor where they were greeted again by the general. Except this time, Casey was surprised to see she was in civvies. And rather festive ones at that.

Casey almost felt like wiping his eyes and doing a double take. General Beckman was standing there wearing a long black velvet skirt, heels, and a knit sweater. With a Christmas tree worked into the front. With small lights on it. That lit up and shone gaily. After he had swallowed once or twice, he was able to choke out, "What's the mission, General?"

"The mission, as you put it, is this way, Colonel," General Beckman said as she started to walk towards a large door. "Our usual, General Sondheim, caught a bad case of wine flu at last night's staff Christmas party so we needed an emergency replacement."

As she finished speaking, General Beckman opened up the door in front of her revealing a large, seasonally decorated hall. There was a tall evergreen tree hung with twinkling lights and tinsel and ornaments in one corner of the room and children were playing everywhere, shrieking and running around, chased by harried parents, who were all high-ranking officers of the NSA.

When one little girl caught sight of Casey, she yelled out, "Look, Santa!" and made a beeline for the agent, flinging herself at his middle and trying to wrap her arms around the padded tummy bulge produced by the special vest underneath his red trousers and jacket trimmed with white faux fur.

After the girl had been pried off and the other children held back, General Beckman led Casey – now Santa Claus – and his elf assistant Monica Trent to a raised platform with a big gold-painted chair at the side of the room. The general told Casey to sit and instructed Monica to find out the name of each child waiting in line, locate the present for that child, and give it to Santa so he could hand them out after he had finished his little chat and photo op with each one.

Casey absorbed this information in silence. Dumbstruck, as a matter of fact. Coming all the way to D.C. to off an important political figure or industrialist or, heck, even a mob boss was what he had expected. Not this.

General Beckman peered past the rims of Casey's round gold eyeglasses, past the fringe of long white beard and curling moustache, past the heavily roughed cheeks and frowned.

"Is there a problem, Colonel?" she inquired icily.

For a moment, Casey felt like throwing a tantrum and refusing. But then he reconsidered. He'd run straight into enemy fire, crawled for miles through sewer pipes, lived in a bare hole in the ground for months. A few little kids shouldn't be any problem. And it seemed like he was under orders on this one, so no sense making waves. It certainly wasn't worth a court-martial, anyway. Plus there was that tasty little elf Monica Trent, who was making eyes at him as though she wouldn't mind sitting on Santa's lap for a while when they were done.

He squared his shoulders under the red velvet suit, sighed, and replied, "No, General, no problem."

"Good," General Beckman said, and with a decisive nod of her head, she signaled for the first child in line to approach. "This, Santa, is my granddaughter. And what does Santa say?"

"Ho, ho, ho, and a Merry Christmas to everyone!" Casey answered dutifully with as much jollity as he could muster while pulling the screaming three year old girl onto his knee.