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It had been hours since the sky darkened, but the activity on the dusty street had increased in the last thirty minutes. I'd watched four different men pass by, hurrying into the adjacent building from where we were camped out. Each arrived separately, scurrying by with their head down, only looking around seconds before darting into the doorway undetected. At least they thought they were undetected. My team had been here for the last twenty-two hours waiting for this moment.

The intelligence group had intercepted communication last week while monitoring local radio chatter indicating Jamil Amari would be in attendance tonight. Amari was the leader of a large terror cell operating out of Iraq, and we'd been trying to capture him for two years. Once the chatter was confirmed, my team was brought in, Alpha Company of the 1st Battalion, Army Special Forces. The hope was that this mission would give us confirmation of his location and the intel needed to arrange his capture. Though the intel was able to obtain details about the meeting location and attendees, the reason for the meeting remained a mystery. Therefore, reconnaissance was the goal of this mission. If an attack was imminent, we needed the details.

The meeting was set for an abandoned apartment building in an old town square just southeast of the Baghdad city center. I was familiar with the area. This was my third tour in Iraq since becoming Captain of Alpha Company. My training made me well prepared for this region. I spent months learning about the people, the culture, the terrain, everything that may be helpful. Then once I arrived, I spent time in the region mingling with the people, learning about this place from those that knew it best. Some I considered acquaintances, but I couldn't call them friends. I didn't have that luxury. There was always the possibility they could be the next person my team was tasked to neutralize.

This particular apartment building had been hit by an IED less than ten months ago. The improvised explosive device was meant for American soldiers passing through the street, but the aim was off. The IED landed in an apartment on the first floor. The explosion killed six and leveled a good portion of the building. With no money to repair the structure, it lay dormant. Until tonight.

"Cap," my medic, Michael Newton, whispered nearby. "I've got audio recording." I nodded in acknowledgement.

"Video is recording," Second Lieutenant Jasper Whitlock, my right-hand man confirmed. He'd placed cameras within the building hours before. We needed visual confirmation that Amari was here.

"Steady, boys," I said quietly. "This is just recon. We'll get him another day."

This was a routine mission; one we could do in our sleep. Go in undetected, set up the equipment, 24-hour surveillance, then back to base. This was simple. Newton was on comms, his mastery of the dialect making him our interpreter. I didn't need a play-by-play, but his job for now was to make sure no one in the meeting was any wiser to our equipment or our presence.

The meeting began on time, and if the intel could be trusted, this would be over in less than an hour. The cell didn't particularly like being gathered in one place for too long, which made them prone to target. As a man quieted everyone in the room, we watched the video feed as Amari strolled inside. Relief filled me. This mission was now a success. Everything else we got would be icing on the cake. Amari began to speak, and not two minutes in, Newton cursed.

"We've been made," he said, dread filling me for only a second before I gained control of my emotions, and we jumped into action. Equipment was disassembled and packed away. Within minutes, we were on the move.

"What the fuck happened?" I asked as we hurried down the stairs.

"I don't know. They must not know about the surveillance, because he just said American soldiers were next door and they'd take us out."

Quickly and quietly we stepped outside and headed in the opposite direction of the apartment building. We were low in numbers and low in ammo having only packed a contingency of weapons seeing as the mission was stealth, not force. We would be fine though. This is what we trained for, why we were considered the elite. Just as we were about to leave the square, gunfire erupted behind us.

"Take cover!" I yelled at my team. We dove behind what looked like two abandoned cars as the slap of bullets against the metal reverberated around us. "Whitlock, how many we got?" I used the scope of my gun to look for other hostiles that may be waiting for us in the direction we were heading, but luckily, it was clear.

"Looks like five on the street and one on the roof - southeast corner," he answered after looking around. Jasper had a sharp eye. He saw all. Six tangos. That was more than doable since there were six of us. We just had to draw them out.

"Okay. So we - ahhh!" A searing pain erupted in my right arm as a bullet hit me. In a split second, the team returned fire. I pushed myself up from where I'd fallen and grabbed my gun, holding it in my left hand.

"Come on; we have to go." Jasper pulled me up and pushed me into a run. I pushed the pain from my mind. I'd deal with that when I had time, and now was definitely not the right time. It was eerily quiet, and when I looked around, the bodies on the ground confirmed they'd taken down the threat. I don't know how long we ran, but the next thing I knew, I was being pushed to sit down. "Newton, come take care of this."

"Captain, look at me," Newton said as he knelt in front of me, pulling his bag from his back. From his pack he pulled bandages, iodine, a small suture kit, and other things I couldn't name.

"I'm fine," I gritted through clenched teeth. It was painful, but I'd live. The bullet had gone straight through and looked as if only stitches would be needed.

"I'm going to do my best to stop the bleeding, and then we can get back on the move." He tore the sleeve from my shirt, wrapped my arm with gauze, and then used the sleeve to tie off my arm. I groaned at the pressure but continued to breathe through it. "Look at me. Follow my finger." I rolled my eyes, shoved his hand out of my face, and stood.

"Let's move out," I commanded. We needed to get back to the base, back to safety.

By the time we reached the extraction point, the helicopter was approaching. We loaded up quickly and reached base within thirty minutes. I could feel my energy wane, but Newton had done a good job staunching the bleeding. As my men headed to be debriefed, a medical team rushed forward.

"I'm fine," I said as I held up a hand to try to ward them off.

"I'll be the judge of that, Captain Cullen," a soft, alto voice answered.

A/N: 02/28/2018

I'm so excited to start this with y'all, and I hope to all hope that you enjoy it. This is meant to be light with a bit of suspense (I can't seem to stay away from that).

For those of you that read the contest entry that inspired this (Christmas Magic), the first part of this story will be very familiar. I'm fleshing it out, but the just is still the same. Let me know your thoughts!

I have no set posting schedule, though I will try to post every 1-2 weeks. I have about 9 chapters written, and there are 30ish in my outline.