To Hell And Back Again.

Summary. . . . . . . . . . . Just how deep can you fall when all you have ever loved is gone, and all you have left is grief and despair? Sam is about to find out, as he faces life alone after Dean's deal is up.

Disclaimer. . . . . . . . . Still Kripke's, as always I'm just borrowing them.

Author's Notes. . . . . . . . . Okay so this was my exchange in the Secret Sam-ta challenge over at CWESS. It was written for vonnie836.

Vonnie, I had a feeling I would get you my friend, I was kinda hoping I would as straight away, after reading everybody else's prompts, I knew which prompt I wanted to write, I can only hope I did it justice? It's been a pleasure writing this for you, enjoy and have a Very Merry Christmas, and safe and prosperous New Year.

I was going to wait and post this Sunday, but I'm going to be busy so you all get an early treat, and another one later when my Christmas gift to darksupernatural will be posted.

For anyone else reading this, Vonnie's summary will be at the end of this tale. Thanks to sammygirl1963 for proofing this for me, that said any mistakes that are left are mine. Thanks for stopping by, enjoy and Merry Christmas.

Now. . . . . . . . . .

He crashed out of the metal door, with it's peeling paintwork, rusted hinges, and ill fitting locks, ignoring the stabbing pain in his back he ran, he just had to get away from there, from the memories, the smells, the sounds, the dead. He raced down the fetid smelling alleyway, a burning need growing and clenching in his stomach, a need to forget for a while, a need to be taken away from this place, a need for the only thing left that worked. He stopped at a line of dumpsters, stepping back into the shadows they created, disappearing from sight, not willing to be seen giving in to his weakness.

He placed a trembling hand into his pocket of his dirty, torn and blood stained jacket and reached for the only thing left now that worked, cries of denial, of hunger, of anger, of terror escaping him as his fingers scraped across broken vials and crushed needles; this couldn't be happening, he needed this, he needed this now. Relief flowed through him as his digits finally found a survivor, he pulled it out with shaky hands and quickly rolled up his sleeve, tapping on a vein that was gradually shrinking and becoming invisible. Depressing the plunger to release any air, he held the sharp point to his arm trying to find a part that wasn't already covered with tracks, finding a new spot he pushed.

His legs gave out as the drug raced it's way through his system, the needle falling from his limp fingers as euphoria blissfully coursed about his body. He slumped against the dumpster he was hiding behind, his legs refusing to hold him, his knees buckling sending him sliding his way to the litter strewn asphalt, and the dubious rivers of liquid that streamed silently through the mess, seeping into his already stained and ripped jeans. Darkness began to encroach, his pupils becoming mere pinpricks as the substance began to take hold, his heavy eyelids closing, his mind switching off, his last conscious thought that maybe this time would be the time where he would forever stay under, in a place where grief and sadness vanished.

Then. . . . . . . . . .

He'd never seen Bobby so mad before, the words the older man had spoken to him hurtful, like millions of knives embedding deep into his already pierced, shattered and bleeding heart. Why did he have to fight him on this? Why couldn't he see that this was the only way? That he had to do this to be sure Dean would still be there when he found a way to bring him back? That he had to try? So he had left, stolen out into the night like some rebellious, stubborn teenager taking Dean's body and his beloved Impala, and running.

They'd come across this place years ago on one of their Dad's numerous hunts. Chasing after a black dog they had stumbled across this secluded shaded oasis, a glade of the softest, greenest grass surrounded by imposing redwoods, standing guard over this little piece of heaven on earth. As though on autopilot his mind had instinctively brought him back here now, a feeling deep down that this would be the place that Dean would want to rest.

The ground was pliable and easy to cut into, the dirt maneuvering with little effort as though it knew he didn't have the strength or the will power for a heavier task. All too soon the grave was dug, and the stolen pine coffin was ready to be lowered, ready to receive it's final package. Once he had placed it inside the hole, he clambered out and turned to go back to the Impala to get his brother's body, pausing and dropping to his knees in the dirt as the realization that this was it, this was the end, hit him hard. He knelt there for the longest time, his body curled at the waist, his head resting on his knees, his eyes streaming with the tears he had refused to allow to fall since the meeting with Lillith and the Hell Hounds, allowing his grief to flow. He stood when he felt he had cried enough, a blackness beginning to creep into his soul, a change in him occurring. Turning he strode through the trees to get Dean, a promise forming in his mind, as he opened the Impala's door he spoke softly. "I will find a way Dean, I promise you I will find a way to bring you back."

Now. . . . . . . . . . . .

The trip back from oblivion came slowly to Sam, and he battled hard to stay under, battled hard to stay where he felt nothing, no pain, no sadness, no grief; where the past year had never happened, where demons had never happened, where he grew up living the normal life with his Brother and his Dad and his Mom; or even better a place where he never existed at all, but just watched as Dean lived with loving parents, safe and happy and alive.

Awareness though relentlessly beckoned, pulling him closer and closer to the surface, a surface where pain, and sadness, and grief ruled. The closer he got the more he began to hear things around him, the slight scuffle of feet, the tinkle of a bottle being accidentally kicked across asphalt, the rustle of clothing being moved, the jangle of change. Feelings came back next, the touch of someone's hands across his body, fingers digging in his pockets.

He moved instinctively, his hand clasped harshly around the wrist of the hand routing around in his pocket, whilst his other arm pushed away at the other hands that were searching him. His body though, still affected by the drugs still coursing through his system was slow, the strength not there, his assailants easily overcoming him taking the few bills he had in his pockets. Feeling a hand reach for his watch, Sam's brain cleared, Dean had given it to him and no matter how low he had gone since his death, no matter what he had done to get the alcohol and drugs he now so craved, he had refused to sell that watch.

Anger brewed inside him, the rage bubbling over as he fought to get to his feet, fought to beat off the thieves that were trying to rob him. He punched at the one who had hold of his wrist, before instinctively turning to attack the rest, not caring how many there were, not caring that he received more hits than he gave, just caring that he save one of the last things his brother gave him. He ignored the sharp sting that blossomed across his ribs as a punch to his face had him reeling once more. He felt the hands attempt to rip the watch from his wrist again and almost gave up hope of keeping it, joyous when a shout from the end of the alley stopped the theft. He heard the attackers running to get away and urged his own body to do the same, not wanting to get caught looking as bad as he knew he did.

Then. . . . . . . . . . .

Days and nights passed in a blur as he searched desperately for a way to bring his brother back. He summoned again a crossroads demon, even though he knew it was hopeless, this time having to walk away with her laughter ringing in his ears. He'd looked down the barrel of a gun for the first time that night, wanting to eat the bullet he knew was chambered there, only his brother's face flickering into his mind stopping him. He knew Dean would be disappointed in him, and he couldn't stand to feel that, so instead he searched.

Obscure, age old rituals were found and used, his own blood spilling in crimson rivers to seal the ceremonies, only for each and every one to falter and fail before his eyes. Witches, warlocks, shamans, soothsayers and healers, he begged and pleaded before them all, willingly offering his own life if it would mean his brother would be released; but the answer from all was always the same, laughter closely followed by a resounding "No!" As he turned away from his last hope, the laughter became too much and the shades of grey he had fought so hard to keep in a world of black and white, shattered. He killed that day, killed something that he would have normally pleaded with Dean to let live. The battle he fought was brutal and bloody, his own body not coming off unscathed before he finally defeated his foe.

He'd struggled back to his room with a hand clenched tightly against his side, collapsing onto the worn bed linen as soon as he had closed the door. Grasping for the whiskey, he downed a good shot to numb the pain, before he began the arduous task of stitching himself up; yet more and more golden liquid seeping down his throat with each pull of the thread through his tender skin. By the time he was finished he'd drank almost half of the bottle, and was loving the numbing feeling it was creating. He started to drink the rest, hoping to drown out the grief in his heart, but found it wasn't the same, something was missing. He raised his hand ready to throw the bottle against the wall in rage, stopping as pain flared violently across his torso, his hand instead bringing the bottle back to his lips, the liqueur this time stirring the numbness he had been searching for and thought lost. Pain, all he needed was a touch of pain mixed with the alcohol, and detachment from his grief would come. Pulling over his laptop he began searching, perusing the pages for his next hunt.

Vampire nests, werewolves, black dogs, all became targets on his hit list. He would enter unprepared, sometimes still reeling from an injury, or his latest binge drink. His weapons would jam, or would be loaded with the wrong ammunition, his mind stuck on other things; that pain he so needed to feel, or that this time he might be lucky and not make it out, dying in a hunt after all was not the same as taking his own life. He always found the pain though, and he always made it out, and as the weeks turned into months, he began to find that the whiskey and pain was no longer enough to dull the grief, and he began to search for something stronger.

Now. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

He stumbled and blundered his way back to the shady, run down apartment he had set up base in. Avoiding the front door, even though he knew his appearance would garner no response from the other patrons, he arduously began to climb his way up the fire escape to his room, jimmying the lock on his cracked and ill fitting window to gain entry. He pushed his way through the small frame, falling in a crumpled heap to the thread bare carpet once he had done so.

Wearily he crawled his way over to the lumpy, festering mattress he had placed upon the bare floorboards, ignoring the harsh stench of vomit and other bodily fluids that emanated from the cheap, thin blankets that lay upon it. He dropped down on top, his hand instinctively reaching for the vials he kept close by, and the vodka bottle he made sure was always topped up. He knew he should sort out his injuries, knew he was bleeding steadily from somewhere, but the need for the drugs was stronger.

He made quick work of plunging the needle in, not caring that the gap between hits was getting smaller and smaller now, washing the drugs down with a hefty dose of the neat alcohol. As the drugs coursed through his system once more, he dropped the needle to the floor and lay on his stomach, his face turned to his weapons bag and the guns that spoke of release from this hell. As a solitary tear fell from a blood shot, red rimmed eyes, he turned away and gulped down the rest of the vodka, waiting for the oblivion to take him once more.

Standing before the building, he can't help but allow the hope that he has been holding back to flow free. Never before in his life had he pursued a prey so determined to stay hidden. Many false leads had followed this one, each one intensifying the ache in his heart, he needed to find him, he needed to see him with his own eyes. Aliases they had used before had turned up nothing, or had been the real names of actual people, forcing Dean to think outside the box, forcing him to think more like Sam. Finally after months of searching they had caught a break, leading both himself and Bobby to this place, he cast a scathing look at Sam's latest home before turning to the older hunter.

"You sure this is the right place?" He asked, a look of disgust creeping across his face. They had stayed in some rough places in their past, but this had to be the worst. Bars hung from every first floor window, peeling paint work and broken panes evident beneath the iron frames. The brickwork of the frontage was crumbling, and the lone sign advertising Sunny Side Apartments hung lopsided from it's chains, squeaking harshly in the light breeze. Litter was strewn everywhere on the pavement, and a couple of drunken bums slept off their latest binge on the uneven and decrepit steps.

"This is it son. What the hell is that idjit doing living here? I seen demolition jobs look safer than this."

"I don't know Bobby, lets go find out."

Treading carefully around the dunks, the two hunters made their way up the steps, hoping that the poor curb appeal was not repeated inside. Dean's heart sank though, and his worry increased as they stepped through the front door with it's triple dead locks and numerous chains, if anything the inside was even worse. Straight in front of them were the stairs that led to the upper floors, the wooden treads covered with threadbare carpet that even from here, Dean could see was covered in stains, from what he didn't even want to think of. To their left was a small lounge area, the three worn down and falling apart sofa's occupied with dubious looking ladies of the night. The right side of the room didn't look much better, the building managers office took up most of the room, the windows of which were caged, the door again triple locked. He turned towards the office, hitting the small bell once he had reached it, sliding a hundred through the small opening as the man came into view.

"Dean Johns, what room is he in." He slammed his hand down onto the man's as he attempted to take the money. "What room? Then you get the cash."

Without even needing to check the man answered. "Top floor, room 406." He scurried back into his den, money in hand, once he had done so. Turning back to the stairs, the two men resumed their hunt, both feeling that the end was now near.

They followed the signs as they turned into a narrow hallway, their feet treading carefully through the mess created by the overflowing trash bags that were littered every where. Dean's hand reached automatically for his gun as above the sounds of crying babies and screaming arguments, he heard the sound of flesh hitting flesh, Bobby's whisper of "it's not our concern" the only thing stopping him from busting down the door. He had a feeling though that if Sam heard them he would bolt before he could explain, so he turned away and continued down the hall stopping at the last door on the left, Sam's door. He hid the slight tremble that shuddered through his arm as he lifted it and struck the wooden entry.

Everything else going on around him seemed to disappear as he waited for Sam to answer the door, questions raced through his mind. How would Sam handle seeing him alive? Would he lash out as Bobby had done? How was his brother doing? What had he been up to? Why had he disappeared? The questions fled to the back of his mind though as all his knocking on the door achieved was silence from inside the room. He turned to Bobby, who could only shrug his shoulders in response.

"Maybe he's on a hunt?" The older hunter offered. "He's been taking some crazy risks lately from what I've heard, so I wouldn't put it past him hunting in the daylight."

"So we wait then, he has to come back here soon."

"So we wait, but boy you better get that door open, cause there aint no way I'm waiting out here."

Taking his pick set out of his pocket, Dean dropped down and started doing as the older hunter said, his skills making quick work of the flimsy lock the door possessed, surprise etching his features as the door slid easily open. What the hell was with his brother? Why hadn't he secured his room better? He stowed the rants in his mind for use after he had seen Sam safe, and moved into the room, his hand moving to his mouth and nose as the stench hit. He turned frantic eyes Bobby's way as he heard him step into the room behind him and saw the same look plastered to his face also, maybe Sam wasn't out?

He bit down the urge to rush further into the room blindly, and took his gun back out of his pocket, knowing without looking that Bobby was doing the same. Slowly they began their search, moving through the empty filth strewn living area, picking out signs with every step that something was seriously wrong with the younger Winchester. Pizza boxes, take away cartons, moldy food, beer and alcohol bottles littered the furniture and floor. Guns, ammunition, knives, and spell books lay scattered around with no care for whoever saw them. Papers were pinned to every available space on the walls, reminding Dean of how their Father's room had looked back in Jericho. Glancing at a few, Dean wasn't surprised at the subject matter, ways to bring some one back from hell.

As Bobby tapped him on the shoulder to state that the room was clear, they both turned towards what they thought would be the bedroom, Dean's heart thudding in his chest with each step he took, different questions once again flooding his mind. Was Sam sick? Was he hurt? Was he even alive? He shuddered at that thought and reached out to open the door, his gun arm dropping to his side as his eyes fell upon the mattress on the floor and the body that lay upon it.

Sam looked a mess. What little skin that could be seen, beneath the greasy, filthy, lank hair that fell across his features, was ashen in color. His lips were dry and split, the edges a troubling shade of blue. His eyes were sunken alarmingly into his head, stark black circles ringing them. Stubble coated his cheeks, yet still beneath Dean could see just how they too had shrunken. His clothes were threadbare in places, torn and ripped completely in others, and Dean would swear that they hadn't been washed in a very long time. With little covering him Dean could see the drastic amount of weight his brother had lost, his ribs and hips clearly visible through the thin fabrics he wore. Scars were visible on his bare arms, and also where his this t-shirt had risen whilst he slept. As he took an even closer look at his sibling, Dean began to panic, Sam wasn't sleeping.

He rushed into the room, desperate to get to his brother. Avoiding the pool of vomit next to his brother's head, and ignoring the cockroaches that fled across the floor, he reached down and tried frantically to find a pulse, his own breath catching in his throat when he didn't feel even the softest of flurries beneath his tips. Frantically he moved his digits about, wondering if he had in fact tried in the wrong place, but no matter where he placed them, the result was the same, Sam's heart wasn't beating. Turning round he growled at Bobby. "Dial 911. Get help, he's not breathing."

He turned his brother over, and tilted his head back, hoping that there was just a blockage in his airway; but the steady rise and fall of his siblings chest, that he so desperately needed to see, never came. "Bobby!" He cried out, needing the older hunter's guidance as to what to do next, his own thoughts a swirling mess of emotions.

"You're going to have to stimulate his breathing Dean, compress his chest until the medics arrive." He didn't wait to see if Dean obeyed his command, instead he returned to the other room and opened the front door before grabbing a clean towel from Sam's minute bathroom and running it under the water, returning to Sam's side once he had done so. As Dean continued to press down on Sam's chest, and the sirens of an ambulance grew nearer, he gently began to clean the youngest Winchester up, multitudes of questions racing around his brain, but only one escaping his lips. "Why Son? Why didn't you come to me?"

They both scrambled out of the way as the paramedics entered the room, Dean albeit reluctantly, not wanting to leave his brother's side for a second. They stood off to the side as they worked frantically to get a pulse racing inside his sibling once more, Dean's nerves fraying all the more with every second that passed, it wasn't supposed to be like this, his return was supposed to have been a joyous occasion, not this. . . . . . . . .this crazy scene from some bad television crime show. Sam was supposed to have carried on the fight without him, his brother promising him as much, so why had it come to this? He pushed his growing anger at his brother, and his fears, aside as he watched them strap his sibling to a gurney and prepare to move him, nearly collapsing in relief when he heard the words he had been desperately wanting to hear.

"We have a pulse, but it's weak. He's breathing on his own again, but we don't know for how long. We'll be taking him to St Peter's over on Main."

"Can I come with you?" Dean asked, again reluctant to leave Sam's side in case the worst should happen.

"So long as you stay out of the way. We need to go now!"

Dean quickly turned to Bobby, happy to see that the older man understood. "I'll meet ya over there. Take care of our boy."

Turning back, he followed the still form of his brother out of the room, one thought now consuming him, the need to bring his brother back, and when he did he was so going to kick his ass.

Four weeks later. . . . . . . . . . .

"Why Sam?"

The words ran over and over through his brain, the tone always the same, accusing, but the speaker changing each time; His Mom, Jess, His Dad, and the worst one, his brother. He scrambled back until his back met the strange metal walls of his cell, pressing his thin body against it's cool surface, trying to make himself as small as possible. He shook his head to clear away the fog that seemed to always be there, a fog that made rational thinking difficult. He knew his brother was dead, knew that he was to blame for his passing just like he was for his Mom's, and Jess', and his Father's, but the touch he had just felt, and the smells he could smell, they felt like pure Dean.

He reached out hesitatingly, wanting to believe, to feel his brother's warm flesh beneath his fingers, and not the gradually cooling skin he had felt after the attack, or the cold tissue that chilled his very bones as he lowered his brother into his casket. The violent shaking of his hands and arms though caused him to shrink back, to fold the long limbs, with their permanently cold hands, beneath his armpits, seeking to cease the shakes and find the warmth that always seemed to evade him these days. His brother wasn't there, it was all a nightmare. As he hung his head to his chest, pleas fell from his lips.

"I miss you Dean. I miss you so much, but you're not real, your not real. Please leave me alone. Please don't use him against me."

Dean could only watch as his attempt to reach his brother once again failed. He'd only wanted to know why, so in one of Sam's more lucid moments he had inquired, not understanding why his words made Sam react as they did, sending his brother tail spinning back down into the depths of despair. He watched as Sam reached for him, and moved accordingly so that they could touch, wanting to ease the vicious shaking that seemed to permanently wrack his frail frame, only to yet again be rejected as his brother pulled back, closing himself off whilst begging for the shit that had gotten him in this mess in the first place. He stood up and backed away knowing he could do little to help, could do little to break through to Sam, whilst he was in this state, it had after all been a daily occurrence since they had stolen him away from the hospital and brought him back here to a place they believed would be more beneficial to his recovery; too many questions were being asked; too many prying eyes wondering about scars created by Sam's messed up attempts at fixing himself; too many questions about insurance, and psychiatrists. They'd had no choice, only now Dean was beginning to doubt, was beginning to feel that they had made the wrong choice. How could he have believed that he and Bobby were the best choice? How could he have believed that experienced hospital staff wouldn't be able to help Sam?

Everyday was different with his brother. Everyday Dean woke up wondering what state his sibling would be in today, wondering if today would be the day they would break through to him. But everyday ended up the same, with a defeated Dean retreating up the stairs, more often than not with Sam's pain filled cries, or Sam's sobbing pleas, or his angry requests, following after him, running through his mind over and over again long after his brother had quieted, bringing tears to his own eyes, and making sleep impossible to come by.

They'd suffered through his angry outbursts and violent attacks; attacks so ferocious they had been forced to restrain Sam just so he wouldn't hurt them, or more importantly himself. They'd ridden through his tears, and his remorse, and his promises, never for a second allowing their guard to drop, knowing from experience in the hospital that to do so would be costly, Dean showing the signs of Sam's attack for weeks after. They'd even managed, somehow, to get through the worst of the cold turkey withdrawal, the shaking, and the vomiting, and the pleas that broke the older hunter's hearts. "I need some stuff. I need to make them go away. Just a bit to take off the edge. Please get me some stuff." They'd seen Sam sweat so much they worried about dehydration. They'd seen him suddenly change to being so cold, his lips would turn blue. They'd seen him beg for death, then change and beg to be saved. They'd seen him vomit one minute, and crave food the next. They'd seen him happy, sad, angry, remorseful, crying, ranting, begging; every emotion they could think off, they had witnessed Sam have.

He moved to the bed, with it's rumpled and sweat soaked sheets, sitting on the edge of the side where Sam sat. He hung his head in his hands, his elbows resting on his knees. Bringing his hands down, he briefly held them over his mouth before dropping them so that they lay along his thighs, the hands held clasped together. He looked at his brother, whose eyes were closed. Figuring him to be asleep, he started to talk.

"I'm so sorry Sam. I know this was my fault, but I had no choice. I couldn't leave you to die there, I had to make the deal and I don't regret it, but I hate seeing what my choices have done to you. I'm so sorry." He swiped at the moisture that trickled down his stubbled cheeks, and placed a hand against a head that seemed too heavy. So caught up in his own dismay, he nearly missed the whispered reply.

"It wasn't your fault. I made my choices. I wasn't strong enough to be out there on my own. See, I'm not even strong enough to stop myself from talking to a freakin' ghost. Some Winchester I turned out to be, Mom and Dad and Jess and you must be so proud to have known me; a junkie, demon spawned, loser."

"I'm not a ghost Sam."

"That's what they all said, Mom, Dad, Jess, hell even myself. They all said "you have to believe me I'm not a ghost" but I knew they were, they're all dead, well except for me, and most of the time I feel as though I am."

"Sam, please you have to believe me, I'm not a ghost. Here, feel me, touch me, see for yourself that I'm not lying." Dean got off the bed as he spoke and inched his way closer to his sibling, holding his hands out in front of him. He watched as Sam looked at him, hope flaring that maybe this time he had succeeded, but he should have known better, witnessing Sam's eyes harden as he tried to press himself even further into the metal wall. Four weeks of dealing with this, which was worse than anything he had had to deal with in hell, crashed down upon Dean, tired of being rejected, he decided to make a stand, if Sam wouldn't come to him, he was going to Sam. Not caring if his brother attacked, he pressed on until his warm hand touched the chill of his brother's face. "See Sam, I'm real, I'm here, and I want to help you beat this, but I can't do it alone, you have to want to help me, you have to want to help yourself. Please Sammy."

He sat back on his knees, and dropped his head to his chest once more, as it seemed as though Sam had rejected him once again, his hand though still pressed against his brother's cheek. He couldn't do this anymore, couldn't sit here whilst his sibling wasted away in front of his eyes, rebuffing all attempts at help. Tomorrow he would find somewhere to take his sibling in, somewhere that would give him the help he needed. Tears dripped from his eyes to stain the worn denim of his jeans, as the sense of failure ripped through him. He had failed Sam at Cold Oak, had failed him as the Hell Hounds came a braying, and had now failed him again, unable to break through and bring him back from the brink.

He ignored the touch at first, putting it down to the flow of water from his eyes, but when it prodded at him again only harder, he couldn't help but look up, his heartbreaking in joy as he looked into the brown depths of his brother's eyes.



That one word was all he needed to hear. He lunged for his sibling, crushing him almost as he pulled him to his chest.

"Dean? I'm sorry. I'm so very sorry." He heard Sam mumble into his chest.

"It's okay Sammy." He choked out in return, his throat suddenly constricting as sobs battled to get out, because he knew it was going to be. Everything would be okay again, it would take time and patience, there would be fights and sadness, ups and downs, but they would face them as one, they were together again, and that was all that mattered.

The End.

Secret Samta request;

AU set after the season three finale. Sam goes off the deep end after Dean dies. He disappears and does everything possible to bring his brother back. When nothing works, he has nothing left to live for. (No Ruby in this version) The only thing stopping him from committing suicide is the knowledge that his brother would kick his butt for it. So instead he drinks heavily, uses drugs, and goes on hunts with no real plans, somehow he survives against the odds. When Dean comes back from hell, and he and Bobby track him down, they find a Sam that is barely a shadow of his former self. Now it is up to them to try and bring the youngest Winchester back.

Peanut x